Tuesday, December 3, 2013
I had missed the earlier memo about the opportunity to post our ten-pagers, so here's mine. Comment if you like; I enjoy a good discussion.
The Fundamental Question
Suppose a man who has had a few too many drinks walks into his house and begins to beat his wife. From a philosophical standpoint, a myriad of questions present themselves. Focused specifically upon the defining lines of the situation, the first one asks how we know that the man has had a few “too many” drinks: How many is too many? Does that number vary from person to person? Then come the questions not of limits but of morality. Is it wrong for him to beat his wife? Is it ever right to do so? Those questions are all questions of rectitude, which begs yet another question: How do we know what is true? At some point, every philosophical question returns to this central one. No philosophical question can be answered without at least considering this notion, as the study of philosophy ever concerns itself with questions of rectitude, which requires some kind of standard, just as some kind of standard must be given for how many drinks is too many. Questions of knowledge and reality all demand a criterion, a way of measuring their accuracy, and people who study such questions must consider the notion of an absolute criterion. In fact, every person and therefore every philosopher searches for some kind of absolute. Plato is probably best known for his absolute form of philosophy, the “Theory of Forms.” One might say that first came Plato, then the rest followed; this paper shall analyze Plato's Theory of Forms, then the philosophies of a few significant early Western philosophers, and finish with critique of each.
Of Reality and Forms
Using the old gadfly as his mouthpiece, Plato develops his Theory through the questions of Socrates to his interlocutors. As Richard Dancy points out, “Socrates had been concerned with the universal, always seeking for definitions” (Dancy 12). Just as Socrates sought persistently the foundation of things so that he could discover what is really true (ironically, he professed through to his death that he knew nothing, even though he spent his life searching for truth), Plato sought truth through pursuing what is universally true. Throughout the Dialogues he presses ever on toward the universal, using Socrates as his mouthpiece much of the time. (For the purposes of this section, we will assume the views Socrates expresses to be those of Plato, as the purpose of this writing is not to delve into the controversy over what was Socrates' view and what was Plato's.) The progression of the Theory may be observed through the Dialogues, beginning especially with Menon and clarifying itself more definitely in the Euthyphro and in The Republic.
The conversation with Menon opens with Menon's question to Socrates of what virtue is. Socrates, in his usual manner, proceeds to deny his knowledge of what virtue is. In the ensuing conversation, Menon delivers a definition of virtue which encompasses various kinds of virtue, subdivided on the basis of age, sex, and economic status. Socrates points out to Menon the absurdity of his notion that “according to each of our activities and ages each of us has his virtue for doing each sort of work...” (Rouse 31). He draws a comparison to bees and asks Menon if he would say that every bee must be different because no one is just like another, or if they are essentially the same in that they are all bees (Rouse 31). Menon agrees that they are the same in their “beehood.” By this simple juxtaposition of Menon's original argument to a counterexample, Socrates illustrates the tenuous foundation of his argument. Further in the dialogue, Socrates brings Menon around to the realization that one must have some kind of baseline standard for determining virtue, using the example of whether a person governs his household virtuously or not. He asks how a person would measure that, and Menon offers up temperance and justice as two factors which must be present in one's governance for it to be virtuous. Socrates pounces upon his idea that justice is virtue and points out shrewdly that Menon just two minutes before had declared justice and temperance to be parts of virtue, but Menon has just declared a part of virtue to be virtue en totale. Thus, Socrates reveals in one of constantly occurring instances within this dialogue the need for some kind of fundamental idea of what virtue is. While Socrates and Menon arrive at a further conclusion regarding virtue, Plato has, through Socrates' questions, laid the foundation of the Theory of Forms: Everything must have some kind of absolute foundation; otherwise, we cannot be certain of anything.
Following upon this idea in the Euthyphro, Socrates begins to require an explanation from his interlocutors as to why, precisely, something ought to be considered x (virtue, for instance)--in essence, demanding a definition of the contested term. The term “form” Socrates first uses in the Euthyphro, in which he reminds Euthyphro of the necessity of judging “all pious actions pious through one form...” (Fine 119). Previously, Socrates had compared disagreements over the size of something or the answer to a sum to the sorts of disagreements which truly set two people at odds with each other. According to Socrates, what sets people against each other is difference over the fundamental virtues, such as justice and goodness. Therefore, he asks Euthyphro to define what is pious so that they may judge a situation rightly (Internet Classics). Gareth B. Matthews, in an essay entitled “The Epistemology and Metaphysics of Socrates,” explains the situation this way: “The set of necessary and sufficient conditions cannot just be features that happen to belong to all and only people or things that are F [a given Form]; they must reveal that by which x is F—that is, what makes x F. ...Put another way, definitional knowledge of virtue, or one of the individual virtues, is having an account of a moral kind that reveals its nature” (Fine 119). C.C.W. Taylor comments upon Socrates' requests for specifications (definitions) of knowledge, noting that, “The requirements for such a specification are exacting; it must apply to all and only the things in question, it must reveal the feature or features in virtue of which things count as of that kind, and that feature (or those features) must be the same in all cases” (Fine 167). Proving “F-ness,” to use Matthews's terminology, then, requires that the thing to be proven be held alongside an objective definition of what that particular F is. Thus materializes the Theory of Forms, albeit vaguely as yet, with its insistence upon an objective reality and standard for applying thought to reality.
One of Plato's best known works, The Republic addresses an enormous range of topics from epistemology to politics. Particularly, the treatise, if one may call it that, includes the virtually legendary Allegory of the Cave. In explaining to another person the Theory of Forms, Plato describes a scene in which a tribe of people has been chained by their necks and feet inside a cave, a situation they have been in for generations. Limited in their movement, all they can see is the shadows of objects which are cast by a fire burning behind them. Plato goes on to suppose that one is loosed and stumbles up the rocky road to the external world, which he realizes after much pain and confusion that what he sees in the light of the sun is reality, and anything he and his fellows have ever known was but a shadow of reality. Therefore, Plato supposes the man who had escaped returns to the cave to bring his fellows out of darkness and into light. Despite his entreaties, however, none of his companions will break loose and join him beyond the cave in the real world (Rouse 373-376). Here Plato completes the Theory by creating a hypothetical situation to illustrate the central point: Reality must have some certain, higher foundation than what is seen; to discover it, we must break free of the bonds placed upon us, although many will refuse.
Throughout his writing, Plato developed ever further and more concretely this idea that every thing must have an absolute genesis and perfect form, a form which humans can know if they will but break free of the world. Naturally, early dialogues such as Menon dealt with the foundational issues of definitions, how much we can know, and how we know it; as they say, the best place to start is the beginning, so Plato started at the foundational question about knowledge: what is it? Once he had established the necessity for definitions, he moved forward to questioning why something fits into a certain category, or why the category is limited in a certain way. Put another way, he asked why a certain thing qualifies as x and asks what x itself is. Ending with The Republic, Plato pulls the pieces of the theory together into a cohesive whole, stepping beyond the abstract precepts of epistemology and bringing the fight to reality itself. In a sense, the Allegory of the Cave takes epistemology to its logical conclusion. Epistemology asks the scholar what we can know and how we know it, which Plato answers in a concrete way through The Cave, using the abstract arguments about definitions and limits to build up to something useful. While Plato presented one of the first complete theories of absolutes in Western philosophy, he was by no means the only one.
Although belief in absolutes was common among Western philosophy's Greek founders (they did, after all, believe in a pantheon of gods, which would require a belief in some sort of absolute), not all took the same tack as Plato took. As a matter of fact, the arguments of some philosophers in favor of absolutes were opposite to Plato's, such as Aristotle's contention that reality could be understood only in terms of particulars, not universals. Pyrrho approached life by questioning everything, down to whether one can know anything at all—yet he also sought objectively true knowledge. The Stoics virtually ignored the question of absolute reality and, like Aristotle, focused upon the physical world. In one way or another, though, each one of these early philosophers (or group of philosophers, in the case of the Stoics) performed the task of philosophy: the search for truth and wisdom, which, in turn, becomes a search for the absolute at its end. Put another way, taking philosophy to its logical conclusion requires thinking at the absolute level, whether the philosopher doing the thinking chooses to accept absolutes or not.
Searching for the foundations of reality and truth, Aristotle approached the subject in a manner about as opposite from Plato's as possible while remaining within the realm of absolutes. Aristotle criticized Plato for looking beyond what, in Aristotle's view, was all that could be seen: the physical world. Instead of looking to something beyond the physical in order to understand the inherent nature of reality, Aristotle sought to assimilate as much knowledge about the particular world as possible. He thought that the only way to understand particular things was to study as many of those like things as possible, then determine the unifying characteristics of those things. He studied the physical world in order to understand the underlying nature of physical things. One might characterize him as the first of the empiricists, for he believed that the only things which might be known and understood are the physical things, for those are the things which may be understood sensually. Put syllogistically, his argument goes like this: Those things which may be understood are the only things worth studying. Since humans may only comprehend the world sensually, the only things which may be comprehended are the things which lie within the scope of the senses. Therefore, the only things worth studying are those which may be comprehended by the senses. Further, the only things worth studying are those which are physical, for those are the only things which might be comprehended by the senses. Aristotle, then, sought to know reality objectively, but he rejected the idea of looking beyond physical reality to what might be beyond it, because physical reality was the end of reality to him. Just as Plato did, he sought for absolute knowledge of reality, but he went about acquiring that knowledge in a way opposite of Plato's.
Of any philosopher, Pyrrho was probably the most paradoxical in how he lived versus his thought. His entire life consisted of questioning the nature of knowledge, yet he also sought to know what reality was. He maintained that one could know things objectively, yet no criterion could ever convince him. As a matter of fact, his kind of skepticism extends to virtually all disciplines of philosophy and all worldviews: Every person holds true a set of precepts which they maintain reflects reality accurately—even those who maintain that absolute truth cannot be known. The simplest question to ask a person who denies absolute truth is “Is that a fact?” for no one can deny absolute truth and, at the same time, maintain that the absence of absolute truth is something which is absolutely true. Apparently no one had asked Pyrrho if he were absolutely certain that he could not be absolutely certain that he was not absolutely certain. Even then, he would not, perhaps, have maintained he could not be uncertain of absolute certainty, for Nigel Warburton points out that Pyrrho summarized his philosophy into three questions: 1) What are things really like; 2) What attitude should we adopt to them; and 3) What will happen to someone who does adopt that attitude (Warburton 18). Maintaining that those questions should be asked and could be answered, Pyrrho lived in pursuit of knowledge about the integral nature of things, but never answered his own questions because he denied all answers—but only theoretically. In practice, he lived as if the things whose existence he questioned were real, if for no other reason than that his friends insisted upon such rationality. To Pyrrho, though, his skepticism of the world was entirely rational, for he believed that one could fully understand reality, but every answer presented to him could never satisfy his three questions. Rationality demands that the person in question use his or her reason to search out the objectively correct answer, and Pyrrho always found some kind of flaw in his interlocutor's reasoning which disqualified the answer from satisfying Pyrrho's standard for knowledge. On the other hand, one must wonder how seriously he took his own way of thinking, since he lived for a decent stretch of time. Perhaps that, too, is due to the influence of his friends. No matter why he lived as long as he did, he still followed the course of every philosopher and searched for what is objectively true, even if he never found it because he rejected every explanation of reality.
In order to determine whether or not a destination has been reached, the person making the journey must have some notion of where they are going before they can say they have arrived. The Stoics took their search for an absolute beyond the foundation and pushed on toward the specific destination. Their specific objective was serenity and peace, which they worked to attain by taking events simply as they came. According to their view, the only way to effectively walk through life while still maintaining some semblance of sanity is to look at each situation from a rational perspective; emotion clouds rational judgment and denies sanity; therefore, a person copes best with tragedy if they simply deny the emotional response and rationalize all situations. If one defines sanity as responding to all events in a rational manner, then achieving sanity means that one responds objectively. When assessing rationality—and thus objectivity—the assessor must have a criterion by which he measures when the necessary amount of objectivity has been reached. Assuming that criterion has been predetermined, one might say the Stoics pursued an objective goal, striving to reach a point mentally where they could be said to be sane and at peace, since nothing could ever rattle their cages or their peace. Although a pursuit of inner peace can't be characterized quite as a pursuit of absolute truth in the general sense of the term, the Stoics did, nevertheless, pursue something which had an objective end. In one sense, then, the Stoics, just like all other philosophers, sought an objectively true foundation on which to base their lives. As a matter of fact, absolute truth is integral to the Stoic way of life. Measuring how effectively a man has achieved his goal requires a criterion, and that criterion must be objectively, absolutely true for it to accurately measure whether or not that man has attained his goal. Some took this notion of hard-nosed rationalism to its fullest conclusion, most notably—and most extremely—Seneca. Taking the Stoic position to its logical conclusion, he maintained that the world has nothing for humanity because of death and suffering. Impressively, he maintained this view all the way through to his death, never faltering, even with the poison at his lips. To his mind, a human could achieve happiness by accepting both the evil and the beautiful as they came, neither weeping over spilt milk nor celebrating the positives more than necessary. In other words, a peaceful life was one in which events had little effect upon one's psyche, where neither elation nor devastation have an appreciable effect upon one's mind. For what, then, did the Stoics seek so assiduously? Peace, which is a mere lack of internal conflict. By hardening themselves to the world and what happened to them, neither expecting pleasure or pain, nor rejecting either one, they sought to win the internal war.
Even if the object of the chase goes unacknowledged by the one doing the chasing, the whole object of philosophy is to discover what is true. For that truth to be discoverable, it must be absolute, for otherwise the search would be futile and render human existence futile. After all, humans, by their nature, attempt to find that which is objectively right, true, and good. Plato searched among the highest essences of things; Aristotle searched among the things themselves to find the common essence; the Stoics ignored the question of objective things and instead searched for objective peace within their hearts; the Skeptics searched for the objective and rejected everything they found. What is the common theme? It is the word “objective.” Put in modern examples, the same search is visible among prominent figures like Richard Rorty and others who all sought to find some kind of personal happiness. To be fair, both rejected the notion of absolute truth—and yet they both sought it, constructively speaking. Distilled down to its basic precept, Rorty's desire was that people in society would engage each other in conversation; that way, we can find out what is true and best. While he would have said that each person needed to find what was best for them and not confine themselves to epistemology, he still sought what was absolutely true in all circumstances. Despite his relativist tendencies, he worked to find truth through conversation and outside of strict epistemology. Philosophy, then, no matter what form it takes and in what time period it is practiced, remains a hunt for what is truly right. Regardless of the goal, each of the philosophies described has ground for criticism.
Any way of looking at the world has ground for criticism, since criticism is, necessarily, a clash of opposing view points. Inevitably, at least one person will disagree with a notion presented, which means they will find some way to criticize another person's way of looking at things. (Indeed, Plato's teacher was executed for engaging in too much criticism. Ironically, criticism of him was what led to his death; that fact lends credibility to the saying, “Curiosity killed the cat.” In this case, curiosity killed the gadfly.) Plato's Theory of Forms is no exception, nor is Aristotle's rejection of understanding what is universally true by what is known to be particularly true. Pyrrho might easily have qualified as a lunatic had he lived during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the Stoics would have appeared callous. No matter the philosophy considered, criticisms may always be levied. The downfall of the Theory of Forms can be found in examining what the form really is. Explained in the Symposium, the highest Form of love cannot reciprocate—that is, it stands as the ultimate sort of love, but it is a love which stands by simply as a monument might: representing something great, but doing nothing on its own. According to Plato (through Socrates), one who has attained the Form of a certain virtue, be it love or anything else, has abandoned all human interaction and stands at a higher plane of reality, sitting among the clouds and enjoying these perfect virtues but not passing them on to others. Another sense of a Form might be that achieving the level of existence at which a Form exists requires abandoning human interaction. The situation described in the Symposium reflects that abolition of human interaction: Socrates describes the process as beginning at simple, human interaction like friendship and marriage, the level of passion and emotion. The next level—ostensibly the level of existence next highest in value—is the chivalric, courageous love of a soldier who fights and dies for his compatriots and patria, a situation in which the soldier acts out of general altruism but nothing more. The final level is the level of the Form, where emotion and human interaction has entirely vanished, leaving nothing but this hollow, ethereal essence of Beauty. Socrates describes it as being the most beautiful of all things, but he commits the error of attempting to define all other beauty using this greatest Beauty, yet he applies the adjective “beautiful” to the highest beauty, begging the question of what standard he uses for that beauty. In describing the highest standard, he requires the use of a standard, which creates a tidy little paradox.
Pyrrho's failure lies in the self-contradictory statement of his philosophy. He searches for what is really true, yet he refuses to accept as true anything which is presented to him, declaring we cannot know it to be true. In fact, he would even go so far as to question his own existence, which begs this question: If your mind doesn't exist to question, how could you even question the existence of the questioning entity? Just as with Plato's paradox in the Symposium, Pyrrho faces the conundrum of how to reconcile his questioning of his own existence with the fact that he exists to question. Rationally and realistically, a person cannot question his own existence, for to do so would be to deny the existence of that thing which one uses to reason and question in the first place, which would mean that questioning would be impossible if Pyrrho's objection were true. In essence, Pyrrho's philosophy is a reductio ad absurdum at its finest.
Attempting to transcend the ills of earthly life, the Stoics abolish human emotion. Frankly, this method of achieving happiness is a terribly dangerous one. Rejecting emotion necessitates rejecting a portion of a human's inherent nature. Emotion exists as an integral part of the human psyche; to deny it means to deny something which completes a human. Perhaps the Stoics rejected emotion because they thought it would magnify the pain and make it more intense than was healthy. And yet, isn't emotion what makes things hurt? Isn't emotion, that deep connection, what makes humans, human? A girl by the name of Veronica Scott put it like this: “I don’t buy the idea that if you are healthy then people can’t hurt you. I just don’t. I mean, how numb would we have to be to be 'healthy?' No… being hurt means that your nerves are working, your neurons are firing. It means you are alive. It means you’ve loved in your life and it means that something matters to you. Being free means that you overcome that pain but never stop loving deeply” (Scott; emphasis added). Freedom does not equal abolition of an integral part of human nature; it means allowing yourself to be built up and made stronger by that pain. Therein lies the tragic flaw of the Stoic mindset: They rejected an integral part of their humanity.
One final question remains: Can the search for an absolute be fulfilled? It would appear that the answers, when simplified, come down to the simple dichotomy of “yes” or “no.” If pressed, most people engaged in philosophy would probably admit that, yes, they seek and perhaps have found something which they consider absolutely true—but that it is not absolutely true for everyone. Killing people is almost universally acknowledged to be wrong except in very specific circumstances (such as self-defense), but a philosophy which declares truth is not absolutely true requires the holder of that philosophy to not even remonstrate (and certainly not excoriate) someone else for killing another human being. Put another way, no one who discounts absolute truth can ever tell someone else they are wrong because that individual effectively denies right and wrong. Nevertheless, people of every philosophy insist upon declaring certain precepts right and others wrong. Might that be due to an intrinsic desire on the part of every human being to have something which never moves, never changes shape, and is ever-reliable, something by which they can be certain of themselves, each other, and the rectitude of their actions? At every person's core is a little child who is still afraid of the dark and wants someone greater than them to hold on to them and tell them it will be okay, because they are safe and nothing in that terribly dark, frighteningly uncertain darkness can come and get them. Every human desires protection from danger and injury; no human can ever provide that, yet we have this innate longing for that protection. Could it be that each human has imprinted in his soul a longing for the one who endowed him with life, who endowed him with emotion and set him apart as a human? Everyone searches for an absolute; nothing in this world can satisfy that desire, for this world is not absolute. While it cannot be had here, it can be had eternally, for Someone came here to hold those who are afraid, Someone who is eternal—and his name is Jesus Christ.
Fine, Gail, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Plato. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Rouse, W.H.D., trans. Great Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Eric H. Warmington and Philip G. Rouse. New York: New American Library, 1961. Print.
"The Internet Classics Archive | Euthyphro by Plato." The Internet Classics Archive | Euthyphro by Plato. MIT, 2009. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. <http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html>.
Scott, Veronica. "Perfectly Normal." Perfectly Normal. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2013. <http://perfectlynormal33.tumblr.com/post/52106933952/i-dont-buy-the-idea-that-if-you- are-healthy-then>.
Warburton, Nigel. A Little History of Philosophy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.