The Philosophy of Plato: General Metaphysics

Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World


by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

The Philosophy of Plato: IV. General Metaphysics

The World of Ideas: Plato’s investigations begin on the Socratic plan, that is, with sensitive cognition, with the purpose not only of transcending the data of sense and arriving at concepts (a problem already solved by Socrates), but also of going beyond Socratic concepts to the point of reaching a world where concepts are actual realities and not only simple representations.

There are two ways to knowledge: the senses and the intellect. The two kinds of knowledge which result differ essentially: sensitive cognition tells us that a thing is, but does not tell us what that thing is; sensitive cognition shows us the existence but not the essence of the thing known. Consequently sense knowledge is devoid of the characteristics of universality and necessity. On the other hand, intellective (conceptual) knowledge tells us what the object is that we know, and has at the same time the characteristics of necessity and universality.

According to Plato, these two kinds of knowledge are not derivable one from the other. Intellective knowledge does not take its origin from sensitive cognition. First of all, the characteristics of both are diametrically opposed: sensitive cognition is contingent and particular; intellective knowledge is necessary and universal. Since the perfect cannot be derived from the imperfect, intellective knowledge cannot be derived from that which is sensitive.

Moreover, Plato, led by his mathematical and aesthetic studies, finds not only that these concepts cannot be derived from experience, but also that such concepts precede experience. I must, for example, have first the concept of a circle in my mind in order to know whether that particular figure on the blackboard is a circle or not. If the knowledge of just what a circle is (the concept of a circle) were not anterior to the data of the senses (the circle drawn on the board), I would be unable to affirm that the given figure is a circle.

Having affirmed the distinction of inderivability and the precedence of intellective over sensitive knowledge, Plato makes of our concepts more than representative signs; he makes of them a world of actual realities. The Ideas of Plato are endowed with real existence in a world superior to the world which we see, which is the object of sensitive cognition. Ideas as they appear in our own mind are but the images or representations of things in this world apart.

Plato was induced to admit the existence of this world of Ideas from a parallelism which he noted between intellective and sensitive cognition. If sense knowledge presupposes a world constituted of beings and is derived from them, equally so must it be said of intellective knowledge: hence there exists a world of beings (Ideas) from which our ideas draw their representations.

The suprasensible world of Plato must be considered as constituting a multiplicity of subsistent ideas which find their unity in the Idea of the Good (God). Platonic Ideas in fact are but the realities which refract the single Idea (the Good). Granted, then, the identity of the Good and of the True and the Beautiful, all ideas are at the same time true, good and beautiful, i.e., perfect models. The world of Ideas is the world of true reality.

The existence of a transcendent world (Ideas) presents Plato with new and grave problems regarding cosmic and psychic nature. Both the sensible world and the human intellect participate in the world of transcendence, the first under the form of essence and the second under the form of Ideas. How can this participation be understood? In other words, what is the relationship between the sensible world and that of transcendence; why are ideas present in the human mind independently of all contact with the sensible world? The attempt to resolve these new problems forms what we will call the cosmology and the psychology of Plato.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work. “Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World” was designed and organized by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D. Copyright ©1992 -2011 The Radical Academy. Copyright renewed in © 2011 -2013 The Radical Academy (a project of The Moral Liberal).

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