Platonic epistemology

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In philosophy, Plato's epistemology is a theory of knowledge developed by the Greek philosopher Plato and his followers.

Philosophy Study of general and fundamental questions

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust? Do humans have free will?

Epistemology A branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.

Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness, or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning.


Platonic epistemology holds that knowledge of Platonic Ideas is innate, so that learning is the development of ideas buried deep in the soul, often under the midwife-like guidance of an interrogator. In several dialogues by Plato, the character Socrates presents the view that each soul existed before birth with the Form of the Good and a perfect knowledge of Ideas. Thus, when an Idea is "learned" it is actually just "recalled". [1]

The theory of Forms or theory of Ideas is a philosophical theory, concept, or world-view, attributed to Plato, that the physical world is not as real or true as timeless, absolute, unchangeable ideas. According to this theory, ideas in this sense, often capitalized and translated as "Ideas" or "Forms", are the non-physical essences of all things, of which objects and matter in the physical world are merely imitations. Plato speaks of these entities only through the characters of his dialogues who sometimes suggest that these Forms are the only objects of study that can provide knowledge. The theory itself is contested from within Plato's dialogues, and it is a general point of controversy in philosophy. Whether the theory represents Plato's own views is held in doubt by modern scholarship. However, the theory is considered a classical solution to the problem of universals.

Plato Classical Greek philosopher

Plato was an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, founder of the Platonist school of thought, and the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world.

Socrates classical Greek Athenian philosopher

Socrates was a classical Greek (Athenian) philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, and as being the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought. An enigmatic figure, he made no writings, and is known chiefly through the accounts of classical writers writing after his lifetime, particularly his students Plato and Xenophon. Other sources include the contemporaneous Antisthenes, Aristippus, and Aeschines of Sphettos. Aristophanes, a playwright, is the main contemporary author to have written plays mentioning Socrates during Socrates' lifetime, though a fragment of Ion of Chios' Travel Journal provides important information about Socrates' youth.

Plato drew a sharp distinction between knowledge, which is certain, and mere true opinion, which is not certain. Opinions derive from the shifting world of sensation; knowledge derives from the world of timeless Forms, or essences. In The Republic , these concepts were illustrated using the metaphor of the sun, the analogy of the divided line, and the allegory of the cave.

Opinion judgment, viewpoint, or statement that is not conclusive; may deal with subjective matters in which there is no conclusive finding

An opinion is a judgment, viewpoint, or statement that is not conclusive.

In philosophy, essence is the property or set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity. Essence is contrasted with accident: a property that the entity or substance has contingently, without which the substance can still retain its identity. The concept originates rigorously with Aristotle, who used the Greek expression to ti ên einai or sometimes the shorter phrase to ti esti for the same idea. This phrase presented such difficulties for its Latin translators that they coined the word essentia to represent the whole expression. For Aristotle and his scholastic followers, the notion of essence is closely linked to that of definition.

The analogy of the divided line is presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in the Republic (509d–511e). It is written as a dialogue between Glaucon and Socrates, in which the latter further elaborates upon the immediately preceding Analogy of the Sun at the former's request. Socrates asks Glaucon to not only envision this unequally bisected line but to imagine further bisecting each of the two segments. Socrates explains that the four resulting segments represent four separate 'affections' (παθήματα) of the psyche. The lower two sections are said to represent the visible while the higher two are said to represent the intelligible. These affections are described in succession as corresponding to increasing levels of reality and truth from conjecture (εἰκασία) to belief (πίστις) to thought (διάνοια) and finally to understanding (νόησις). Furthermore, this analogy not only elaborates a theory of the psyche but also presents metaphysical and epistemological views.

Platonic doctrine of recollection

The Platonic doctrine of recollection or anamnesis , is the idea that we are born possessing all knowledge and our realization of that knowledge is contingent on our discovery of it. Whether the doctrine should be taken literally or not is a subject of debate. The soul is trapped in the body. The soul once lived in "Reality", but got trapped in the body. It once knew everything, but forgot it. The goal of Recollection is to get back to true Knowledge. To do this, one must overcome the body. This doctrine implies that nothing is ever learned, it is simply recalled or remembered. In short it says that all that we know already comes pre-loaded on birth and our senses enable us to identify and recognize the stratified information in our mind.

In philosophy, anamnesis is a concept in Plato's epistemological and psychological theory that he develops in his dialogues Meno and Phaedo, and alludes to in his Phaedrus.

Metaphor of the sun

In The Republic (507b-509c) Plato's Socrates uses the sun as a metaphor for the source of "intellectual illumination," which he held to be The Form of the Good. The metaphor is about the nature of ultimate reality and how we come to know it. It starts with the eye, which Socrates says is unusual among the sense organs in that it needs a medium, namely light, in order to operate. The strongest and best source of light is the sun; with it, we can discern objects clearly. Analogously for intelligible objects The Form of the Good is necessary in order to understand any particular thing. Thus, if we attempt to understand why things are as they are, and what general categories can be used to understand various particulars around us, without reference to any forms (universals) we will fail completely. By contrast, "the domain where truth and reality shine resplendent" is none other than Plato's world of forms—illuminated by the highest of the forms, that of the Good.

The divided line

In Plato's Republic, Book VI, the divided line has two parts that represent the intelligible world and the smaller visible world. Each of those two parts is divided, the segments within the intelligible world represent higher and lower forms and the segments within the visible world represent ordinary visible objects and their shadows, reflections, and other representations. The line segments are unequal and their lengths represent "their comparative clearness and obscurity" and their comparative "reality and truth," as well as whether we have knowledge or instead mere opinion of the objects.

Allegory of the cave

In his best-known dialogue, The Republic , Plato drew an analogy between human sensation and the shadows that pass along the wall of a cave - an allegory known as Plato's allegory of the cave.

Allegory Literary device

As a literary device, an allegory is a metaphor in which a character, place or event is used to deliver a broader message about real-world issues and occurrences and it is developed first by Nishalya Jung Rayamajhi. Allegory has occurred widely throughout history in all forms of art, largely because it can readily illustrate or convey complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners.

Charioteer myth

Along with these other allegories, Plato's charioteer myth (Phaedrus 245c-257b) certainly also deserves mention. The ascent of the mind to celestial and trans-celestial realms is likened to a charioteer and a chariot drawn by two winged horses, one dark and one white. Figuratively represented is the famous Platonic tripartite model of the soul: the charioteer represents reason, or intellect, the dark horse appetitive passions, and the white horse irascible nature. Only by taming and controlling the two horses can the charioteer ascend to the heavens and enjoy a banquet of divine knowledge. Key epistemological features of the charioteer myth are (1) an emphasis, as with the cave allegory, upon true knowledge as ascent, (2) and the need to tame one's passionate nature to obtain true knowledge.

Plato, in his dialogue Phaedrus, uses the Chariot Allegory to explain his view of the human soul. He does this in the dialogue through the character of Socrates, who uses it in a discussion of the merit of Love as "divine madness".

The Phaedrus, written by Plato, is a dialogue between Plato's protagonist, Socrates, and Phaedrus, an interlocutor in several dialogues. The Phaedrus was presumably composed around 370 BC, about the same time as Plato's Republic and Symposium. Although ostensibly about the topic of love, the discussion in the dialogue revolves around the art of rhetoric and how it should be practiced, and dwells on subjects as diverse as metempsychosis and erotic love.

An example: love and wisdom

A good example of how Plato presents the acquiring of knowledge is contained in the Ladder of Love. In Symposium (210a-211b), Plato's Socrates cites the priestess Diotima as defining a "lover" as someone who loves and love as a desire for something that one does not have. According to this ladder model of love, a lover progresses from rung to rung from the basest love to the pure form of love as follows:

  1. A beautiful body - The lover begins here at the most obvious form of love.
  2. All beautiful bodies - If the lover examines his love and does some investigating, he/she will find that the beauty contained in this beautiful body is not original, that it is shared by every beautiful body.
  3. Beautiful souls - After most likely attempting to have every beautiful body, the lover should realize that if a single love does not satisfy, there is no reason to think that many ones will satisfy. Thus, the "lover of every body" must, in the words of Plato, "bring his passion for the one into due proportion by deeming it of little or of no importance." Instead, the passion is transferred to a more appropriate object: the soul.
  4. The beauty of laws and institutions - The next logical step is for the lover to love all beautiful souls and then to transfer that love to that which is responsible for their existence: a moderate, harmonious and just social order.
  5. The beauty of knowledge - Once proceeding down this path, the lover will naturally long for that which produces and makes intelligible good social institutions: knowledge.
  6. Beauty itself - This is the platonic "form" of beauty itself. It is not a particular thing that is beautiful, but is instead the essence of beauty. Plato describes this level of love as a "wondrous vision," an "everlasting loveliness which neither comes nor ages, which neither flowers nor fades." It is eternal and isn't "anything that is of the flesh" nor "words" nor "knowledge" but consists "of itself and by itself in an eternal oneness, while every lovely thing partakes of it."

Knowledge concerning other things is similarly gained by progressing from a base reality (or shadow) of the thing sought (red, tall, thin, keen, etc.) to the eventual form of the thing sought, or the thing sought itself. Such steps follow the same pattern as Plato's metaphor of the sun, his allegory of the cave and his divided line; progress brings one closer and closer to reality as each step explains the relative reality of the past.

Related Research Articles

Platonic realism is a philosophical term usually used to refer to the idea of realism regarding the existence of universals or abstract objects after the Greek philosopher Plato. As universals were considered by Plato to be ideal forms, this stance is ambiguously also called Platonic idealism. This should not be confused with idealism as presented by philosophers such as George Berkeley: as Platonic abstractions are not spatial, temporal, or mental, they are not compatible with the later idealism's emphasis on mental existence. Plato's Forms include numbers and geometrical figures, making them a theory of mathematical realism; they also include the Form of the Good, making them in addition a theory of ethical realism.

The analogy of the sun is found in the sixth book of The Republic (507b–509c), written by the Greek philosopher Plato as a dialogue between Glaucon and Socrates. Upon being urged by Glaucon to define goodness, a cautious Socrates professes himself incapable of doing so. Instead he draws an analogy and offers to talk about "the child of goodness". Socrates reveals this "child of goodness" to be the sun, proposing that just as the sun illuminates, bestowing the ability to see and be seen by the eye, with its light so the idea of goodness illumines the intelligible with truth. While the analogy sets forth both epistemological and ontological theories, it is debated whether these are most authentic to the teaching of Socrates or its later interpretations by Plato. The sun is a metaphor for the nature of reality and knowledge concerning it.

Allegory of the Cave Allegory by Plato

The Allegory of the Cave, or Plato's Cave, was presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work Republic (514a–520a) to compare "the effect of education (παιδεία) and the lack of it on our nature". It is written as a dialogue between Plato's brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates, narrated by the latter. The allegory is presented after the analogy of the sun (508b–509c) and the analogy of the divided line (509d–511e). All three are characterized in relation to dialectic at the end of Books VII and VIII (531d–534e).

<i>Symposium</i> (Plato) philosophical text by Plato

The Symposium is a philosophical text by Plato dated c. 385–370 BC. It depicts a friendly contest of extemporaneous speeches given by a group of notable men attending a banquet. The men include the philosopher Socrates, the general and political figure Alcibiades, and the comic playwright Aristophanes. The speeches are to be given in praise of Eros, the god of love and desire. In the Symposium, Eros is recognized both as erotic love and as a phenomenon capable of inspiring courage, valor, great deeds and works, and vanquishing man's natural fear of death. It is seen as transcending its earthly origins and attaining spiritual heights. This extraordinary elevation of the concept of love raises a question of whether some of the most extreme extents of meaning might be intended as humor or farce. Eros is almost always translated as "love", and the English word has its own varieties and ambiguities that provide additional challenges to the effort to understand the Eros of ancient Athens.

Platonic love is a type of love, or close relationship, that is non-romantic. It is named after Greek philosopher Plato, though the philosopher never used the term himself. Platonic love as devised by Plato concerns rising through levels of closeness to wisdom and true beauty from carnal attraction to individual bodies to attraction to souls, and eventually, union with the truth. This is the ancient, philosophical interpretation. Platonic love is contrasted with romantic love.

"Form of the Good", or more literally "the idea of the good" is a concept in the philosophy of Plato. It is described in Plato's dialogue the Republic (508e2–3), speaking through the character of Socrates. Plato introduces several forms in his works, but identifies the Form of the Good as the superlative. This form is the one that allows a philosopher-in-training to advance to a philosopher-king. It cannot be clearly seen or explained, but once it is recognized, it is the form that allows one to realize all the other forms.

Meno is a Socratic dialogue scripted by Plato. It appears to attempt to determine the definition of virtue, or arete, meaning virtue in general, rather than particular virtues, such as justice or temperance. The first part of the work is written in the Socratic dialectical style and Meno is reduced to confusion or aporia. In response to Meno's paradox, however, Socrates introduces positive ideas: the immortality of the soul, the theory of knowledge as recollection (anamnesis), which Socrates demonstrates by posing a mathematical puzzle to one of Meno's slaves, the method of hypothesis, and, in the final lines, the distinction between knowledge and true belief.

Phædo or Phaedo, also known to ancient readers as On The Soul, is one of the best-known dialogues of Plato's middle period, along with the Republic and the Symposium. The philosophical subject of the dialogue is the immortality of the soul. It is set in the last hours prior to the death of Socrates, and is Plato's fourth and last dialogue to detail the philosopher's final days, following Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito.

<i>Republic</i> (Plato) philosophical work written by Plato

The Republic is a Socratic dialogue, written by Plato around 380 BC, concerning justice (δικαιοσύνη), the order and character of the just city-state, and the just man. It is Plato's best-known work, and has proven to be one of the world's most influential works of philosophy and political theory, both intellectually and historically.

Platonism philosophical theory

Platonism is the philosophy of Plato and philosophical systems closely derived from it. The philosophy affirms the existence of abstract objects, which are asserted to exist in a third realm distinct both from the sensible external world and from the internal world of consciousness, and is the opposite of nominalism. Philosophers who affirm the existence of abstract objects are sometimes called platonists; those who deny their existence are sometimes called nominalists. The terms "platonism" and "nominalism" have established senses in the history of philosophy, where they denote positions that have little to do with the modern notion of an abstract object. Platonists do not necessarily accept any of the doctrines of Plato.

Diotima of Mantinea was an ancient Greek prophetess and philosopher thought to have lived circa 440 B.C.E., who plays an important role in Plato's Symposium. In the dialogue, her ideas are the origin of the concept of Platonic love.

Beauty (ancient thought)

Beauty for ancient thinkers existed both in form, which is the material world as it is, and as embodied in the spirit, which is the world of mental formations.

Diotima's Ladder of Love, also known as Plato’s ladder of love or Plato’s ladder of Eros is a philosophy of different types of love that originated in Plato's Symposium. Socrates had a speech contest of praising Eros, the goddess of love. In the end, they summarized the ideas based on the teachings of a priestess, Diotima. There are six types of love and each kind is put on a rung of a ladder. The ladder represents the ascent of love from pure physical attraction to more psychological one.

Philosophy in the 4th century was an epoch which hosted a series of philosophical pioneers and their respective ideologies and edicts. During this time, such individuals as Aristotle (Aristotélēs), Plato (Plátōn) and Socrates (Sōkrátēs) forged the framework of the ideological world that proceeded them and let their own ideals be left to their inheritors. As such their philosophical ideas have left an imprint on the philosophical world as a whole.


  1. Ackrill, J.L. "Anamnēsis in the Phaedo," in E.N. Lee and A.P.D. Mourelatos (eds.) Exegesis and Argument: Studies in Greek Philosophy Presented to Gregory Vlastos. Assen, 1973. 177-95. On the theory of recollection in Plato's Phaedo(73c-75).