Plato is one of the world’s best known and most widely read and studied philosophers. He was the student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle. His level of thinking and reasoning were well beyond that of his time. Plato is most well-known for his theory on forms but I find Plato’s Theory of Knowledge behind his example of the cave and divided line fascinating. There are three main examples I want to focus on that can be used in describing Plato’s theory of knowledge: his allegory of The Cave (my favorite), his metaphor of the Divided Line and with some extra help from his theory on Forms. Each theory is intertwined and are the best examples to represent Plato’s own view on what knowledge really is, even thought they are unique in their own way by opening up new and different ideas, Here we will explore how one example relates to the other in terms of the truth of knowledge from Plato’s point of view.
In “The Cave”, Plato describes a scene of prisoners seated in a dark cave facing a wall from birth; the prisoners have never seen anything except shadows. If the prisoners could turn around they would see puppeteers with props and a fire behind that. In the example, the puppeteers are using the fire to produce shadows on the wall for the captive prisoners. Plato states that to them, reality is just a shadows thrown onto the wall, because that is all they have ever and will ever know. Another vision was about a prisoner being released, describes how his movements would suffer, his eyes would suffer and his body would suffer not only emotionally but physically. All the evidence I gather from “the cave” makes it seem like Plato thought most of humanity was living in a cave, in the dark and very limited in knowledge being bound to bare minimum, and that with new knowledge and to gain this new information is basically humanity being rescued from darkness. He put it this way, “the conversion of the soul, in the readiest way; not to put the power of sight into the soul’s eye, which already has it, but to ensure that, instead of looking in the wrong direction, it is turned the way it ought to be.”(Plato Republic book X) To Plato the rest of humanity was basically these tied up people. Gaining true knowledge to common people would be the same as letting one man out of the cave, potentially dangerous and also freeing at the same time.
The Divided Line:
The Divided Line visualizes the levels of knowledge in a more systematic way. Plato states there are four stages of knowledge development: Imagining, Belief, Thinking, and Perfect Intelligence. Imagining is at the lowest level of this developmental ladder. Imagining, here in Plato’s world, is not taken at its conventional level but of appearances seen as “true reality”. Plato considered shadows, art and poetry, especially rhetoric, deceptive illusions, what you see is not necessarily what you get. With poetry and rhetoric you may be able to read the words but you may not understand the “real” meaning. For example, take, again, the shadow. If you know a shadow is something “real” then you are beyond the state of imagination which implies that a person is unaware of observation and amounts to illusion and ignorance.
Belief is the next stage of developing knowledge. Plato goes with the idea that seeing really is not always believing we have a strong conviction for what we see but not with absolute certainty. This stage is more advanced than imagining because it’s based more firmly on reality. But just because we can actually see the object and not just its’ shadow doesn’t mean we know all there is to know about the object.
In the next stage, Thinking, we leave the “visible world” and move into the “intelligible world” which, Plato claims, is seen mostly in scientists. It stands for the power of the mind to take properties from a visible object and applying them. Thinking is the “visible” object but also the hypotheses, “A truth which is taken as self-evident but which depends upon some higher truth”. Plato wants us to see all things as they really are so we can see that all is inter-connected. But thinking still doesn’t give us all the information we crave and we still ask “why?”
For Plato the last stage of developing knowledge, Perfect Intelligence, represents “the mind as it completely releases from sensible objects”; which is directly related to his doctrine of forms. In this stage, hypotheses are no longer present because of their limitations in depending on even further higher truths.
Plato summarized the Divided Line with “And now you may take, as corresponding to the four sections, these four states of mind: intelligence for the highest, thinking for the second, belief for the third, and for the last imagining. These you may arrange as the terms in a proportion, assigning to each a degree of clearness and certainty corresponding to the measure in which their objects possess truth and reality.”(Johnson 59)
When discussing the Divided Line, The Forms are the highest levels of “reality”. Plato concludes here that the “real world” is not what we see but what we understand or feel in an “intelligible world” because it is made up of eternal Forms. The Forms take on the explanation of existence and life. Plato describes forms as changeless, eternal, and nonmaterial essences or patterns of which the actual visible objects we see are only poor copies. Plato uses a person discovering the quality of beauty to explain this, “he will abate his violent love of the one, which he willâ€¦deem a small thing and will become a lover of all beautiful forms; in the next stage he will consider that there beauty of the mind is more honorable that there beauty of outward form. Drawing towards and contemplating the vast see of beauty, he will create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love of wisdom; until on that shore he grows and waxes strong, and at last the vision is revealed to him of a single science, which is the science of beauty everywhere”. (Plato republic book XI) There are many Forms but not everything has a Form, if this were so then there would be a parallel world. Forms are not something we can touch but something we hold in our minds, the thought of a perfect circle or prefect shapes; Plato described them as “real existence, colorless, formless, and intangible, “visible only to the intelligence”.
Forms do not exist per se; they just can’t be touched. Plato said, “The forms are the causes of all our knowledge of all objects. The forms contribute all order and intelligibility to objects. Since we can only know something insofar as it has some order or form, the forms are the source of the intelligibility of all material objects.”(Tate) To me forms are what we get our ideas from; the thought of something perfect, when made by man is imperfect. Plato said Forms are related to things in three ways: cause, participation and imitation. But Plato doesn’t mean to say that all Forms are related to each other, only that significant things use some Forms and that just knowing that includes understanding the relationship between Forms.
Plato says there are three ways to discover Forms: recollection, dialectic and desire. Recollection is when our souls remember the Forms from prior existence. Dialectic is when people discuss and explore the Forms together. And third is the desire for knowledge.
Plato’s Theory of Knowledge leads us down many roads but we see the same theme through-out all of the examples: light to dark; ignorant to educated; reality to really real. In The Cave we move from the dark of the cave to the light of outdoors, showing us our on limitations and how knowledge can get us beyond our previous limitation, but also how our knowledge can be a limitation if we do not keep searching. The Divine Line took us from the ignorance of Imagining to the education of Perfect Intelligence. The Forms showed us that even though we can see something does not mean we can see all of it and just because we cannot see something does not mean it does not exist. All three link knowledge as the key to all; anything and everything. If you have infinite knowledge there is nothing you cannot have.