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Plato’s Recollection Argument in Phaedo and Kantian’s theory of knowledge

Phaedo is one of the several dialogues where Plato offers his views on knowledge acquisition by means of recollection. In this essay I shall present a brief outline of the relevant section of the dialogue and compare Plato’s theory of knowledge that emerges from it with that of Kant’s. This analysis will reveal that although there are some apparent similarities between Plato’s and Kant’s stances, the differences far overshadow them and the basic epistemological and ontological commitments of these philosophers are rather different.  

The Recollection Argument in Phaedo is used to justify the claim about immortality of the soul. The argument is introduced by one of Socrates interlocutors, Cebes: “Socrates, …if that theory is true you are accustomed to mention frequently, that for us learning is no other that recollection. According to this, we must at some previous time have learned what we now recollect. This is possible only if your soul existed somewhere before it took on this human shape”(72e). Several lines later, Socrates proceeds with an explanation of the argument that takes only a couple of pages but has quite a complex structure. On the surface level, the argument can be broken down into the following major stages:

  1. The knowledge comes to the mind in the following way – “when a man … perceives one thing … also thinks of another thing” (73c) – ……………………………………………………. ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………The outline of Plato’s arguments is removed as it is not relevant here ……………….  ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

These are the steps of the argument aiming at proving the immortality of the soul, the merits nor the weaknesses of which shall I analyze here. What I will look at is the theory of knowledge that is presented throughout the argument in a rather dispersed manner. The theory can be presented as follows: Plato believes that knowledge (at least what amounts for him to a philosophically justifiable knowledge) can not  be derived from merely sense perceptions, but it necessarily involves elements that are of a distinctly different nature, they are present in us prior to perceptions and it is to them that we must “refer our sense perceptions”(75b) in order to attain genuine knowledge. These elements that play a pivotal role in the theory of cognition are described with the following words “all those things which we mark with the seal of ‘what it is’ ”(75d), they are claimed to exist “most definitely”: “we say that there is something that is equal. I do not mean a stick is equal to a stick or a stone to a stone, or anything of that kind, but something else beyond all these, the Equal itself. Shall we say that this exists or not?—Indeed we shall, by Zeus, said Simmias, most definitely”(74e), and as examples of them are presented: Equal itself, Good itself, Just itself, Beauty itself, Pious, etc.  Clearly, what we are dealing with here are platonic Forms. Hence Plato appears to be advancing a theory of knowledge according to which there is no knowledge possible without the inner resources of the soul present in it prior to perception and to which the perceptions are “referred and compared” (75b, 74a). These important contributors being the Platonic Forms. At the same time, perception is also given its significant role as a necessary condition of possibility of knowledge since it is perceptions that trigger the process of recollections (76e). Moreover the results of our cognitive experiences “derive from seeing or touching or some other sense perception, and cannot come into our mind in any other way”(75a).

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Hence it seems that Plato had put forward a theory of knowledge that exhibits substantial similarity with the one elaborated more than two millenniums later by Kant who had also proclaimed that a priori concepts of understanding or the categories on the one hand and sense-perceptions on the other are the two required elements for empirical knowledge. Both thinkers had emphasized the crucial contribution that inner resources of the mind or soul make in the process of cognition. There is no genuine knowledge possible without Forms for Plato, just as Kantian a prior concepts are declared to be universal and necessary conditions of knowledge. The overall structure of cognitive operation according to which sense-perceptions trigger anamnesis that culminates in the attainment of knowledge seems to be mirrored by Kantian threefold synthesis of apprehension, reproduction, and recognition.  But if with Plato we “refer our sense perceptions” to the Forms, with Kant they have been replaced with pure concepts of understanding. It appears that in the two cases at hand one way of formulating the contribution that the soul or mind makes to experience is replaced by another leaving the overall structure of the cognitive model intact.

However, once Plato’s theory is examined more closely a picture very different from that of Kant’s emerges. We shall start with two claims made by Plato central to his theory that immediately strike one as non-Kantian through and through. The first one is concerned with the deficiency of the perceived particulars compared to the forms. What is sensibly perceived merely strives, wants to be like, but falls short of what is successfully recollected. Hence Socrates asks: “Do they [equal objects] seem to us to be equal in the same sense as what is Equal itself? Is there some deficiency in their being such as the Equal, or is there not?” and receives the desired response: “A considerable deficiency”(74d). This claim of deficiency comes in direct contradiction with the Kantian model, as according to it the contribution that mind makes to the process of cognition is fully present in its outcome. Perceptual objects of experience and knowledge contain concepts (whether pure a priori or empirical) in their full-blooded form and the question of their deficiency does not even arise. The inner resources of the mind for Kant can be described as one type of building material from which the knowledge of particulars and the empirical realm in general is constructed. Henceforth the particulars can not be deficient to the forms if  Plato were advancing a model similar to Kant’s.

Another important claim for his theory is related to the scope of people who are acquainted with the platonic Forms. Socrates asks Simmias: “So you do not think that everybody has knowledge of those things?” referring to Forms and is given a response “No indeed” (76c). Now, this can be interpreted either as a denial of having any acquaintance with Forms or inability to give a proper account of them. If the former is the case, then we can take Plato as directly asserting that not everybody has awareness of Forms, but even if the latter interpretation is correct, it still would not exclude the former.  Contrary to this, it would encourage us to think that the former is the case as well. If there are very few who can give a proper account of x, then there is a good chance that not everybody is aware of or has any contact with x. Moreover, Plato’s dialogues are full of characters that not only can not give the correct account of forms (like justice, piety, beautiful, excellent, etc.) but more importantly for our case, are not aware of the deficiency of their opinions. Contrary to this they often appear to be quite confident in their beliefs. But as we have seen, during the process of recollection what is taking place is the comparison (74a) and referring (75b) of the perceived particulars to the Forms. Hence, the lack of awareness on the part of many of Socrates’ interlocutors of the essential deficiency of their opinions is another sign that the scope of people who engage in the process of recollection is limited. Now this thesis is antithetical to Kant’s theory of knowledge. Kant is much more a democrat in this respect (and probably in many others as well), he thinks that all of us are engaged in the process of subsumption of individuals under universals. Concepts are in play throughout even the most simple and elementary experiences.

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But perhaps the most revealing of the difference between Kant’s and Plato’s theories is the passage which appears at the very beginning of the Recollection Argument. Here Socrates claims: “when a man sees or hears or in some other way perceives one thing and not only knows that thing but also thinks of another thing of which the knowledge is not the same but different, are we not right to say that he recollects the second thing?”(73c).  It is significant that in describing how he conceives the process of recollection Plato does not merely write that a man perceives a thing and is reminded of another thing which would be enough to give a general idea of recollection. Instead he makes two additional points 1) a man not only perceives one thing but also “knows that thing” and 2) a man is reminded of the second thing “of which the knowledge is not the same ”. Plato makes these additional claims in order to clarify his own position and exclude some possible misinterpretations. Firstly, by emphasizing that the first thing is cognized, he is making it clear that the thing is not merely perceived but also becomes an object of knowledge. Thus the possible interpretation according to which the second object would be brought to the mind by something of which the perceiver had either no awareness or no conceptual grasp is discarded. The second point is made to highlight that what a man is reminded of is not already included in the thought of the first object or the cognition thereof. And indeed most of the examples which Plato offers (the examples clearly have only explanatory value not being the genuine cases of Form-recollection) also point us in this direction: there is no concept of a boy included in the concept of a lyre, and the same with other pairs, Simmias – Cebes, Simmias’ picture – Cebes, picture of a horse or a lyre – a man.

Hence we can conclude that for Plato the first object is already perceived and recognized prior to triggering the process of recollection. This belated involvement of the Forms could not be farther from the role Kant assigns to concepts either pure a priori or empirical. They are necessary conditions of the possibility of knowledge. Not only do concepts play a pivotal role at the last stage of cognitive process wherein a unified sensible manifold is subsumed under them, but they play a role already at the very first stage of cognitive experience—apprehension, when the object is being perceived. Contrary to this, for Plato Forms and their recollection play no role in perceiving and cognizing the sensible objects of experience. Particulars or participants are already perceived and cognized and beliefs or opinions about them are formed regardless of whether the process of recollection will ensue or not. Perception of participants certainly can, but will not necessarily initiate a process of recollection. Moreover, as we know from Meno the role of this trigger can be played not only by perceptions but also by interlocutors, but as far as cognition of ordinary objects is concerned, the recollection and the Forms don’t have to be brought into the picture at all.

At the end it should be pointed out that all the above described differences between Plato’s and Kant’s theories rest on and emerge from the fundamentally different ontological outlooks that these thinkers uphold.  If for Plato (at least in the period when Phaedo was written) sensible objects constitute  second-order reality and are essentially deficient in their being equal, just, beautiful, etc. as they can without having undergone any change be equal as well as unequal, beautiful as well as ugly, etc. They only imperfectly are or rather merely aspire to be equal, good, etc. While Forms as immutable intelligible entities are contrasted to the sensible realm and constitute the true reality marked with “the seal of ‘what it is’(75d). Kant in contrast to this believed that inner resources of the mind posit the basic structure of no other but this very sensible, mundane, empirical reality. They are not of the world of beyond, of the superior reality, but the conditions of the possibility of the sensible world and fully present in it.  It is based on this fundamental difference that at the first sight similar epistemological claims once more closely analyzed render very divergent meanings. Indeed both Plato and Kant believed that the inner resources of our soul or mind play a crucial role in furnishing knowledge, but what each one took to be knowledge was radically different from the others’ and was geared to the particular ontology each one was committed to. When Kant is talking about knowledge he means knowledge of the sensible, empirical realm. Contrary to this for Plato, it is only when one ceases “dragging [him/herself] in any sense perceptions with his reasoning”(66) and focuses on the immutable certainties, the true reality of the Forms, that (s)he attains genuine knowledge. While when the soul directs its attention to the sensible realm of ever-changing objects that, instead of being, merely become or participate in what only Forms are, “it opines and is dimmed, changes its opinions this way and that, and seems bereft of understanding”(508d).

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