Sunday, November 14, 2010

Understanding Belief and Believing Understanding in Plato's Republic

Although Plato’s Republic thematically explores the nature of justice, the discourse of this virtue leads to the discussion inevitabilis of the “true” philosopher—the capacity and nature of human perception. In an attempt to clarify justice within a man, Plato’s characters first explore the thorough construction of a just city. In their discussion, the spirited development of the best city seems to distract Socrates and his students from defining justice itself, instead focusing primarily on the founding of a state. However, they eventually resolve that necessary components of a just city—bravery, temperance and wisdom—become the definition of justice. Although Plato thoroughly addresses these specific elements within the best society that work to credit its justice, the proposed intelligible, justice, consequently becomes far more abstract—Plato must now define three other virtues in order to know of justice (Republic VI, 506a). Yet how can the philosophers ever really know what these virtues truly mean? And with the introduction of definitive knowledge, Socrates establishes the paradox of perception and knowledge (V, 447b). For, can knowledge be known? Or understanding understood? In a momentary detour from his best-city analogy and discovery of justice, Plato proposes his revolutionary theory of The Divided Line—a concept intended to illustrate the relationship of human perception to opinion, belief, knowledge and wisdom. And although his theory accesses understanding of the good or ideal, such conjectures ultimately remain inadequate in their efforts to understand true goodness.

Using simile to instruct his diagrammatic conception, Plato accesses an understanding of the realities of the physical world by separating knowledge from belief. The Divided Line marks the transition from the physical reality, governed by the sun and informing opinion, from the intelligible reality, governed by the good and instructing knowledge. As grounds for such division, Plato addresses the inconsistencies within knowledge itself. Per Plato’s assumption, all knowledge and beliefs emerge from the experiences, or perceptions, of the physical world. However, Plato believes that the physical world is not reality. In Plato’s theorizing, reality becomes a realm of perfected ideas, or intelligibles, that the physical world merely imitates. Therefore, the physical realm informs the human of the world of ideas, but as best described in the simile of the cave, perceptions of physical objects are imperfect shadows, thus unreliable for establishing truth (VII, 515c). And the inevitable question surfaces—is knowledge within human cognition? Because the very consideration of this enigma creates a circular reference between a human whom is reasoning and human reasoning. As an analogy—could one feasibly obtain a US Passport if existed a prerequisite of a US Passport for procurement? Certainly not. No one would own the initial passport required to obtain a passport. Thus, applying the limitations of this analogy to human understanding renders intelligible knowledge virtually unattainable. For, like the passport requirement, essential to the consideration of understanding and knowledge, first occurs the necessity to understand and know. Consequently, to ponder knowledge without first possessing knowledge appears futile. And if knowledge were indeed bound by a circular reference, would such lofty attempts as the Republic provide any benefit?

Notably, in traditional Platonic interpretation of knowledge, the value in the pursuit of knowledge deduces to the conclusions rendered through the process. Such approach would ultimately conclude that there is no benefit; for if ultimate truth is not ascertained, the entire process is must be worthless. Conversely, the final definition of justice in Plato’s Republic would valuate the entire preceding discussion. Isolated, this assumption appears logical enough. However, evidenced by the long-winded perseverance of Socrates and his students in the development of the best city (I-X), the traditional approach seems to undermine the essence of Plato’s entire investigation. As the founders-of-state move farther away from a definitive exactness of justice, the ultimate objective according to traditional interpretation, they instead pursue an understanding of justice (II, 368d), which is an end not addressed by conventional readings. In this shift of purpose, Plato seems to suggest that perhaps definitions, although desirable in their efficiency, actually abstract reality, rather than exact truth. For Socrates’ concludes his idea of justice as, “the power that brings forth well-governed men and well-governed cities” (III, 443c). In this statement, Plato relies on the conceptualization of a well-governed city to most honestly represent true justice rather than a traditional qualitative definition. Suggestively, perhaps Plato’s simile of the best city is as accurate an imitation of justice as Webster’s definition; while Webster offers a calculated phrase, Plato creates an object of perception—a physical object that imitates the ideal.

Further examination of this perceived physicality indicates not only that objects are equally true imitations as compared to definitions, but also that definitions may contain even less truth than imprecise conceptualizations. As perceptions are internalizations of external objects, definitions are but a series of words—themselves, inexact representations of already vague perceptions. Simply stated: copies of copies. In the physical realm, objects are the ultimate truth and perceptions are the first-generation imitations of truth. Yet definitions are the second-generation reproduction of imitations (IX, 585c). Definitions are the formulated product of perception—a step further away from the object itself. As words facilitate the expression of conceptualized thought, they both limit and provide for this phenomenon of expression. Therefore, when actual perceptions of objects fire in the brain, they are reconstructed into word packages, or representations of the more accurate idea remaining in the mind. Just as a copy of a copy is of less quality or exactness to the original, so perceptive definitions are poorer carbons of the physical reality. Therefore, although perception may not produce an exact representation of an object, such assessments most likely contain more aspects of the truth of the object than a description or definition. And admittedly, there may exist a definition that is fully true, in that every component of the definition exists in the ideal. However, the likelihood remains that the truth is not fully implicated in a definition. Thus, the means in this matter—the process of developing conclusions—undeniably possess innate value regardless of the end, an inevitably false imitation of reality.

Therefore, as Socrates alludes in an earlier discussion, the complete abandonment of the consideration of knowledge would present a great loss (II, 592a-b). Although ultimate truth may not be attainable through conventional hypothesizing of reality, such pursuit is not fruitless. At several points in the development of the best city, Socrates claims that although his proposed city may never function in the physical world, in idealistically founding a city-state, such effort will develop certain knowable truths pertaining to intelligibles (II, 592c). As Plato proposes physical objects reflect certain truths of the intelligible good, so the discourse of the Republic may reveal particular realities of the ideal city or of justice as an idea. Such results would be of highest value to the seeker of wisdom. Conclusively, although Plato does not package a concise definition of justice, which would stand alone in truth and wholeness, the dialogue in the Republic leads to an understanding of certain aspects of justice, which are invaluable in the transition towards wisdom.

Therefore, full and true knowledge may be unattainable, however desirable; thus, the pursuit of knowledge retains value and must be practiced methodically if any aspect of ultimate truth is to be discovered. With this realization, particular avenues of investigation must prove more profitable than others. As a method of discovery, Plato’s dissection of cognition proves particularly helpful. Both belief and knowledge are cognitive processes, the former governed by the physical and the latter by the intelligible. In recognizing this separation, an integral aspect of knowledge is the regard for opinion as something different than truth. Belief represents hypotheses based upon perception and analysis; whereas knowledge represents ultimate truth and permanence. Although both acceptable and necessary, belief, therefore, implies impermanence. Accounting for this transient quality, perpetual sensory intake and object perception within the physical realm possess the eternal ability to alter belief. In theory, belief is dynamic. And as a consequence of impermanence, beliefs can be true, and beliefs can be false. So, if belief contains such a contradiction and propensity towards falsehood, should it be discarded as an appropriate means of investigation of the good? Seemingly, Plato would disagree.
In a strategically placed anomaly within the Book V, Socrates’ admission of the dangers of belief offers guidance in this query.

At the onset of the Republic’s scandalous Book V, Socrates acknowledges his own doubt and apprehension in relating his theorizing to his students, “ …to speak while one is in search of answers, is a slippery and dangerous path… What I fear is that I may mistake the truth” (V, 450e). If after such a confession, Socrates would curtail his proposal, perhaps belief could be discredited as a means to truth. However, even with claims as outrageous as the proposals of Book V, Plato continues in his discourse, although unconvinced of its truth. For, to only consider ideas containing indubitable truth as conveyed by the Theory of Forms would leave the world virtually thoughtless and void of any quality of truth. Surely, even with both Socrates and Plato’s regard for truth, such a suggestion seems preposterous. Alluding to Plato’s support of belief, certain uncharacteristic qualities of Socrates’ admission suggest that perhaps Plato inlaid this oddity so that at the moment the value belief becomes dubious; such doubt would reference Socrates’ response to belief. For, as Socrates waxes hesitant in his proposal, Plato interjects a slight air of arrogance—almost as if he imagines the countercultural-shock value of his forthcoming proposal. Considering how the entire development of Plato’s Republic aims towards the understanding of justice, certainly Socrates’ belief in Book V is not an exception. Socrates’ opinions of the best city, therefore, aid in the progression towards the ultimate ideal of justice. In this example of belief, the actual truthfulness of Socrates’ proposal is not relevant, but the mere fact that he entertains such belief, even with the recognition that his belief could be misguided, suggests that Plato credits belief with some level of benefit.

Therefore, belief is valuable, yet dangerous—for how can cognition discern belief from knowledge?
Incidentally, this event alludes to the distinction between true and false belief, to be further established in Book VII. Plato suggests that reason is often misguided by perception, another point undermining the traditional view of Plato. For if belief potentially masquerades as knowledge, that which humans consider “knowledge,” could perhaps be false. Following, there is no verified method to distinguish between true and false knowledge, even if the knowledge has emerged along Plato’s diagram appropriately from perception to understanding. Therefore, even the traditional approach creates a counterfeit assumption that knowledge is knowable and believables, as defined by Plato, are intelligible. Yet, interestingly, Plato never makes such a claim as this illusory interpretation. Notably, he never directly refutes this proposition either; however, if perception and belief in the realm of the Sun authenticate understanding of reason and knowledge, a society may comfortably settle with unexhausted conceptions, thus assuming previously constructed ideas as reality. Maintaining the assumption that nothing is completely knowable, a just society therefore engages in a never-ending quest to discover the unknown. Such an affect seems far more preferable when considered the entirety of the Republic.

For, when beliefs cannot confirm truth, yet require faith and continued exploration, deficit reasoning does not discredit the means of the pursuit in the way that traditional interpretation may. Certainly Plato did not subscribe to conventional thought, for his entire work would be deemed useless. And in further diagramming of cognition, Plato underwrites the perpetual necessity to process the physical realm in order to proceed towards any realistic imitation of wisdom, much less the reality of wisdom. In Adeimantus’ initial challenge to Socrates in Book II, he implores Socrates to offer proof of the intrinsic value of justice. Propelled by this appeal, the following seven books intend to confirm the inherent nature of justice (II, 357,b). If a complete work addresses the constitutional significance of an ideal, as does the Republic with regard to justice, so wisdom must possess innate value. Yet, if wisdom is unattainable, the conclusion remains that cognition—a stepping-stone to wisdom—would possess this same intrinsic quality. To confirm such a hypothesis, in Book II, Plato not only affirms the intrinsic value in justice, but he even regards it as the highest benefit of justice (II, 357c). Perhaps this is also true of wisdom and reasoning. If so, occasion rises to validate the intrinsic value of reasoning. And reasoning alone produces no tangible outcome, yet refers to a process; therefore, the profit of reasoning must be in the transaction, not the balance. Concluding at this outcome, traditional valuation—which gives superiority to the final rather than the field of discourse—becomes insufficient, and perhaps misguided.

Therefore, concluding that reasoning is intrinsically valuable, Plato’s initiative in the Republic becomes foundational—in that it outlines an approach towards cognition. In the Divided Line analogy, the cognitive transition from the visible order of the sun to the intelligible order of the good models the transition from opinion to knowledge. By assuming no knowledge, as Socrates does in the Apology, freedom finds the seeker of knowledge. No longer is thought focused on the “right” answers, yet consideration becomes the strengthening of the soul and the mind—thus, the ultimate goal. If there are ultimate truths, then the “truthful” and honest pursuit may someday lead to wisdom. However, the irony remains that without ascertained access to wisdom, such recognition is impossible, again relegating wisdom to the unknown. As in the analogy of the passport, such attainment of “knowledge” cannot be confirmed when the premises of wisdom is and admission of knowing nothing. Thus, Plato’s entire dialogue seems to be much more of exercise than an answer book. His conclusions hold much less significance than his line of thought. Perhaps this is why his works are considered so foundational and all other philosophy is “but a footnote” (Dr. Dennis Huston) to his discourse. And as most athletes train to in order to develop a strong body, so do philosophers “train” to develop strong minds. Certainly, the ability to bench press 400 lbs is an admirable result, yet there is not much use in this data. The significance of such strength remains with the capability and use of such effort. For weights and bench press numbers are qualitative and measurable. Wisdom and rightness, as concluded, are not. Ultimately, knowing is of little importance, yet seeking to know remains of ultimate value. As argued and practiced by Plato, strong and constant effort to understand and learn evolve the soul much more profoundly than stumbling upon “rightness.”

So, perhaps Plato offers no ultimate wisdom or “truthful” idea in the realm of the good, but this matters not when we discard the traditional interpretations of his work. In outlining his thoughts and approach to thinking, Plato gives thinkers a most precious gift. And perhaps discredited throughout the years since his writings, Plato’s separation of knowing and believing lay a foundation for dynamic thought that can access the gateway to wisdom, even though human reasoning is bound to the physical realm of object perception. Remaining focused and aware of such a deficit becomes the only plausible hope of ever reaching the realm of the good. And as battled by man since the dawn of time, the mystery of thought and the limitations of human reasoning becomes an attainable end, for the end becomes the means. Thinking is believing; and, believing is almost knowing—only the knowledge that there is nothing that can be known.