The Philosophy of Plato: Psychology

Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World


by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

The Philosophy of Plato: VI. Psychology

The Soul

We have said that Plato, once having admitted that knowledge of Ideas is anterior to sensitive cognition, is presented with the question of when and how the soul came into possession of this knowledge. To solve this difficulty, Plato has recourse to the Pythagorean theory of preexistence. Souls exist before their bodies, and as Ideas and unformed matter are eternal. From eternity they exist together with Ideas, and it is thus that they have come to know Ideas. Cast out of the ideal world because of some mysterious fault, souls carry within themselves the knowledge of these Ideas (Innatism).

Such knowledge, however, from the very moment the soul was banished from the ideal world and was united to the body, falls into a kind of lethargy. It will be the sensation, as we shall presently see, that shakes the mind from its sleep and brings it once more to the realization of the presence of Ideas within itself. The soul which descends from the invisible world to put on the mortal remains which it must keep for the course of earthly life, finds that the body already has an irrational soul subdivided into two parts: the irascible (impulsive and disdainful), with its seat in the heart; and the consupiscible, residing in the bowels and inclined to the ignoble pleasures of the senses. The rational soul is that which comes from the invisible world and takes its seat in the head. Its union with the body is extrinsic; the body is as it were its tomb, and it must regulate the impulse of the irascible soul and repress the desires of the concupiscible soul if it wishes to live according to reason.

The immortality of the soul is a consequence of the doctrine of the preexistence of souls. If souls existed before the body the latter is not necessary for their existence, and hence with death souls return to live as before this union. In the Phaedo, Plato has other more valid arguments, such as that deduced from the nature of the knowledge of Ideas, from which he deduces the fact that the soul must be by nature similar to Ideas, i.e., simple and not subject to changes.

Cognition as reminiscence

The fundamental grades of cognition are two: sensitive and intellective. The first is bound up with the object which appears to our senses, hence it is bound up with matter, and deprived of all necessity and universality. It generates opinion, which is a knowledge of the particular; it is incapable of being taken as a basis of science, which must transcend the particular and is founded on the necessary and absolute.

Intellective cognition, on the other hand, is real knowledge and forms the basis of science. As we have said, the one is inderivable from the other. Thus sensitive cognition, containing the image (though faded) of the invisible world, offers to the intellective soul the occasion of awakening again in itself knowledge of the Ideas which it already had in the suprasensitive world. The soul, in the presence of the image offered by the senses, acts like a slave who, bound to the door of a cave, recognizes from the shadow projected on the cave’s depths whose image the shadow may be. (“The Myth of the Cave,” Republic, VII, 1-3.) Intellective cognition for Plato is not the acquisition of new content, but the reawakening of a knowledge already possessed: it is nothing other than reminiscence.

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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