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Plato’s Simple Solution

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Plato’s Simple Solution

Conceived in 380 B.C.E, Plato’s Socratic dialogue, Meno, is one of the earliest pieces of literature that analyzes virtue. Although Socrates is unsuccessful in his attempt to define virtue, the significance of this piece lies in the fact that it explores vital philosophical concepts. Most fundamental, however, is the distinguishment that develops between knowledge and right opinion. Socrates claims that despite the apparent synonymity of the two, they are in fact separate entities with knowledge eclipsing right opinion on the premise that it provides a concrete example to explain “why” (97e). His exploration of this deviation does not end in Meno. In one of his later works, Phaedo, Plato successfully lays the foundations for what he believes could provide “an account for a reason why”, known as his Theory of Forms.

        Socrates understands that knowledge and right opinion are closely related but diverge for a multitude of reasons. He defines knowledge as acquirable through the means of lessons; thus, in order for something to be considered knowledge, there must be a teacher that will transfer this knowledge from their soul to another. Similarly, he regards right opinion as transferable. The disparity, however, begins with the fact that right opinion can spawn from the mind without the influence of other sources, whereas knowledge is solely attainable via lessons from a teacher. For example, an individual may correctly answer a math problem by simply guessing. The source of this ability is the individual’s mind. To Socrates, this individual does not possess knowledge upon the given concept; rather, they formulated their own opinion on the problem and happened to be correct in that instance. Had the individual possessed knowledge, their method would be sufficient for future use, but since they did not acquire their understanding by the means of a teacher, their right opinion is a mere tool that cannot be relied upon to yield similar results unless their right opinion is always correct. Provided this, it is only natural for the dialogue to proceed with Socrates’ explicit statement which suggests why knowledge is invaluable in comparison to right opinion despite both of their abilities to yield similar results.

He asserts that in contrast to knowledge, right opinion fails to explain “why” something is the way it is; thus, it quickly abandons one’s mind. In other words, an individual who possesses right opinion on a particular subject will act comparable to that of a robot — they follow directions, perform the given task, and forget about it afterwards. Rinse and repeat. The individual will not be able to identify why they were successful in their endeavor unless their right opinion evolves into knowledge through the means of a primary account, or recollection, that illustrates why it unfolded in the manner it did. This is paramount to Socrates’ logic — the notion that knowledge is right opinion anchored by an individual’s personal explanation (98a). To clarify this ideal, Socrates provides the metaphor of a man who possesses a marvelous sculpture crafted by Daedalus. The sculpture — as beautiful and exquisite as it is — has no valuable unless the man possesses it forever. Otherwise, it is a sheer object that is no more valuable than its counterfeit. Analogously, right opinion is inferior to knowledge on the basis that it is not absolute and constant; and as a result, that respective right opinion can vacillate over time.

In Phaedo, Plato introduces the concept of the forms to clearly explain the reason “why” something is the way it is. Prior to his employment of the forms, philosophers such as Democritus rationalized with material causes. For example, to demonstrate why an individual is bigger than another, they would claim, “they are bigger by a head” (a “head” being a colloquial term for a small measurable amount) (96e). And although it may seem neat and dandy, the issue that arises with such reasoning is the formulation of a paradox. The paradox with this Post-Parmedian explanation is that it is not absolute, meaning for this respective example, the question that emerges is “How can something be made bigger than another if the reason it is bigger is because of something smaller?”. Evidently, such rationality — one that permits the opposite causes to justify same effects — is inadequate. This is the principle issue by which Plato summons the forms.

Unlike material causes, forms are intangible, unchangeable, and immortal — they are impeccable. Additionally, forms encompass the quintessence of the properties that exist in material objects. Given this definition of them, it is clear the forms are absolute standards that persist independently of space and time. Essentially, Plato hypothesizes the Theory of Forms to reveal causation by allowing material objects to partake, or participate, in the form itself. Take the previous example of an individual being bigger than another. To explain such a phenomenon, Socrates argues that the individual is bigger than another, because they participate in the Form of Bigness, or Bigness itself, at the given time (101a). Furthermore, the individual is not obligated to participate in the Form of Bigness for the entirety of their life; however, the Form of Bigness will eternally exist regardless of whether or not the individual is considered bigger or smaller in comparison to another. By accounting for the fluidity of an individual (through the inclusion of the phrase “at the given time”) and relativity from individual to individual, such reasoning is appealing to Socrates.



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