Plato and Aristotle Essay

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Plato and Aristotle are arguably the two most important philosophers in Western history, because although they were not necessarily the earliest thinkers to consider questions of epistemology and ontology, they were arguably the first thinkers that attempted to order their considerations of these questions in quasi-scientific systems. Although subsequent scientific research has rendered many of their more self-assured pronouncements obsolete or even laughably incorrect, the fact remains that their work remains essential for understanding the development of Western thought. By examining some of their most notable theories and discussions as well as comparing and contrasting their work, one is able to see how contemporary concepts of knowledge, being, individuality, and reality ultimately stem from the work of these two thinkers.

Both Plato and Aristotle concern themselves with the realm of metaphysics, which automatically makes discussing their ideas somewhat problematic because by definition there is no evidence for anything metaphysical. That is to say, the only evidence for anything available to humans is physical, because even logical deductions and inferences first depend on observations of physical phenomenon. Thus, in a way there is no such thing as metaphysics, but this has not stopped philosophers, theologians, and other people who believe in imaginary things from constructing elaborate systems of meaning intended to either demonstrate or justify a belief in the metaphysical. In the case of both Plato and Aristotle, metaphysics is not viewed as something entirely made-up and separate from actual reason and science, but rather represents the highest level and perfection of science, because it is supposed to be reason separated from the lower-order world of physicality and objects. Both philosophers mistakenly believed in the idea of a mind-body dichotomy, and as a result viewed metaphysics as the science of the "mind" or higher-level intellectual sphere. Their treatises on metaphysics, then, can be viewed as attempts to organize their theories about this metaphysical realm and its relation to reality into a coherent, consistent system. While no one has ultimately been able to provide evidence for the existence of this metaphysical realm, when taken as a metaphor for thought and knowledge, both Aristotle and Plato's metaphysical systems provide useful insights into the subjective human experience of reality.

Arguably the most well-known of Plato's thought experiments is the allegory of the cave, but before getting to this concept it will be helpful to discuss an idea included earlier in Plato's Republic, namely, the analogy of the divided line. In this analogy, Plato attempts to describe his particular system of metaphysics as a line divided into different parts, with each part of the line representing a different level of reality. Plato, like countless other philosophers and theologians, erroneously imagines that there exists a distinction between the "mind" and the body, as if consciousness itself is somehow divisible from the material processes that give rise to and maintain it (namely the brain and nervous system). As a result, he first divides his line into two unequal parts, with the first part representing the "visible class of objects" and the second part representing "the intellectual" (Plato 231). He then divides each section, with the first visible section representing "illusion" and the second section representing the "the real objects corresponding to these images," while the latter half of the line is divided into reason and "the objects of the soul, as it makes its way from a hypothesis to a first principle which is not hypothetical" (Plato 231-232).

By this Plato means the second half of the line is divided into reason and scientific inquiry on one level and what Plato believes to be the essential, eternal forms that science can only reach by way of hypothesis (Plato 233). As mentioned above, this formulation depends on the erroneous belief that one can separate the mind from physical reality (a belief which has no supporting evidence and quite a deal of refuting evidence), but disregarding Plato's fundamental error for a moment, one can see how the analogy of the divided line nevertheless helped Western thought develop a more accurate and productive conception of knowledge. In particular, Plato's distinction between objects and their shadows on one hand and fundamental properties and reason's means of determining those fundamental properties on the other helps one understand the relationship between subjective, human knowledge and reality. While Plato's notion of first principles is fundamentally flawed due to his insistence (without evidence) on a metaphysical sphere somehow separate from the physical, his analogy of a line with successively "higher" planes of reality is instructive because it allows one to understand, for example, the difference between a scientific theory describing a phenomenon and the phenomenon itself. Thus, in attempting to explain evolution to a dubious audience, one could say that the theory of evolution corresponds to the first segment of the intellectual or intelligible portion of the line, while the actual process of evolution corresponds to the higher level of reality, because it exists entirely independent of the theory which attempts to explain that process in human terms.

Plato expands on the idea of differing levels of reality and understanding in his more well-known allegory of the cave, which posits that people are, for the most part, living in a cave watching shadows dance across a wall, and operate under the mistaken belief that those shadows are the actual objects, rather than merely the distorted and fragmented reflections of actual objects (Plato 235-236). Plato argues that without the "light" of philosophical inquiry, individuals will stay in the cave, ascribing meaning and importance to perceptions that are in actuality merely reflections and refractions of reality. If the analogy of the line is meant to demonstrate Plato's metaphysical theory in general, the allegory of the cave serves to demonstrate the social and collective importance of moving beyond the illusions of the merely visible and exploring those areas of reality and experience that require critical thought and inquiry.

Aristotle has a somewhat similar discussion of objects and their characteristics or effects, but in the case of Aristotle he differentiates between the substance of a thing and its accidental properties. By substance Aristotle means the actual, essential thing, while accident refers to a characteristic that may be present but does not necessarily need to be present. While not exactly the same as Plato's distinction between different levels of reality, Aristotle's discussion of the distinctions between the substantial and accidental characteristics of a particular object or subject is related because in both cases, the philosophers are attempting to demonstrate to their audience that true knowledge stems from inquiry and the analysis of differences, rather than the blind acceptance of apparent reality.

From these more general depictions of the differences between perceptions and reality Plato developed a number of specific ideas. Specifically, he used the notions of eikasia, pistis, dianoia, and episteme to characterize different kinds of thinking and knowledge, and it is here that one can see one of the most important connections between Plato and Aristotle, because Aristotle also attempted to order different kinds of thinking within a larger taxonomy. For Plato, eikasia roughly corresponds to the notion of imagination, and particularly the difficulty humans have in distinguishing whether or not something is real or merely a reflection. Pistis refers more to a disposition, while dianoia corresponds to the capacity for scientific and rational thought. Finally, episteme itself means knowledge for Plato, and particularly knowledge as belief that is justified by evidence rather than convention.

Aristotle also had his own classification of knowledge, the means of acquiring it, and the differences within it. Aristotle also uses the notion of episteme, but he contrasts it with techne, which is a kind of practical, applied knowledge as opposed to the abstract knowledge represented by episteme. To this Aristotle adds the notions of sensation and experience, with the latter being the actual physical perception and interaction with a given object, while the former is the ability of the "soul" or mind to be influenced by and react to these experiences (Aristotle 191).

Thus, where Plato divides knowledge and the capacity for knowledge according to the different modes of thinking or essentially subject matter, Aristotle adds a wrinkle to this division by further distinguishing between perception and the effect this perception has on the mind. Interestingly, Plato attempts to discuss how perception and experience influences knowledge, but he does so by attempting to define, or at least reject faulty definitions of, knowledge itself. In the dialogue Theaetetus, Plato has the character of Socrates consider and then reject three different definitions of knowledge.

The first definition considered is the idea of knowledge as simply perception, and Socrates eventually dismisses this definition by pointing out that perception differs not only between individuals, but also across time, such that one cannot call perception knowledge because the former does not necessarily lead to the latter. Then Socrates focuses on the idea of knowledge as "true judgment," but comes to the conclusion that this cannot be correct either, because one could come to a true judgment without actually… [END OF PREVIEW]

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