Plato’s impressive contributions to psychology

Psychology also draws on the contribution of many thinkers, writers and philosophers.

In this article we will explain Plato’s contributions to psychology: His perspective on knowledge, the rational soul, psychic structure and its influence on the science of human behavior. A historical figure whose ideas are still relevant today.

Plato (428-348) and his contributions to psychology

Plato was born in the era of peace and the splendor of democracy Pericles. Belonging to the Athenian aristocracy, he received the education of a young upper class (mainly gymnastics and poetry). He was also one of the most fervent disciples of Socrates until his death (“The wisest, the nicest and the most beautiful of men”, according to him). He traveled through Greece and Egypt, receiving major influences from the mathematician Theodore, as well as the Orphics, Pythagoreans and Eleatics: Heraclitus and Parmenides.

Plato founded the Academy, Dedicating his life to teaching the philosophy. He accepted Parmenides’ relativism regarding perception. (Three buckets of water in a row: hot, warm and cold: by inserting one hand in each of the extreme buckets, then the two in half, the one that was in the cold will be hot, and the one that was in the fred.). Plato would also accept the doctrine of the Heraclitian flow, arguing that all objects are constantly changing, so it is impossible to know them. Knowledge for Plato is of the eternal and unchanging (the Being of Parmenides) and, therefore, there is no knowledge of perishable things.

The world of ideas

Plato called Forms or ideas to the objects of unchanging knowledge. There is a form for every class of objects for which there is a term in the language (eg, “cat,” round “, etc.) Plato believed that the perceived objects were imperfect copies of these forms, because these are in permanent change and are relative to what he perceives them (importance of language shaping reality: concepts are the only ones immutable, they relate to Forms and are not conventional).

An example of this idea appears in the metaphor of the line, which belongs to The Republic (Fig. 1). Imagine a line divided into four unequal segments. The line is divided into two large segments representing the world of appearances and perceived opinions, and the world of abstract knowledge, or intelligible world. The first segment is shorter, to denote its imperfection. The world of appearances is divided, in turn, in equal proportions, into the world of imagination and that of belief.

Imagination is the lowest level of cognition, As these are simple images of concrete objects, analogous to the reflections that fluctuate in water. Plato banished Art from his republic, relegating it to this imaginary plane.

The eternal epistemological debate

For Plato, the apprehension of images or the imagination is the most imperfect form of knowledge. It is followed by the contemplation of the objects themselves; as a result of this observation he called it Belief. With the next segment, Thinking, mathematical knowledge begins. The mathematician has a general knowledge of things. The ideal world of Geometry is very similar to the world of Forms (or Ideas): the Pythagorean theorem (the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the legs) refers to the Rectangle Triangle, and any particular example will be a copy of the bottom of the perfect right triangle. Plato believed that the relationship between copy and form was true, however, in all cases.

For Plato the last segment, the higher form of knowledge (intelligence or knowledge) is of a higher level than mathematical knowledge. Indeed, mathematical thought produces knowledge in its system of premises, but since it is not possible to know if its premises are correct (the starting axioms like A = A), it cannot constitute true knowledge.

To attain knowledge, we have to go higher, in the realm of forms, to the fundamental principles. His position on this schema of knowledge has evolved throughout his life. In the first dialogues, Plato believed that the experience of concrete objects stimulated the memory of the innate knowledge of forms, although imperfectly, being therefore real stimuli to awaken our knowledge.

in the intermediate dialogues, Denied any valid role in sensory perception and confined knowledge to abstract and philosophical dialectics. He eventually returned to his first belief in the potential value of sensory perception. He also developed his notion of dialectics, making it an instrument to classify all things with precision. At the same time, his conception of Forms became more and more mathematical and Pythagorean.

Plato’s problem with form theory has worried some researchers in modern cognitive psychology about the formation of concepts. Trait theory states that each concept is made up of a number of traits, some of which are essential and some are not. Prototype theory states that the concept is formed around a prototype or formula. The Form could be considered as the prototype whose concrete cases are imperfect replicas (myth of the Cave).

psychic structure

Plato divided the soul, or spirit, into three parts. First there was the immortal or rational soul, Located at the head. The other two parts of the soul are fatal: impulsive or fiery soul, Aimed at conquering honor and glory, is located in the chest, and the Passionate and appetizing soul, Interested in bodily pleasure, in the womb (fig. 2).

the Rational soul it is linked to forms and knowledge. It is his duty to control the desires of the other two, in the same way that the charioteer controls two horses. The passionate soul had, for Plato, a particular need for submission on the part of reason. (Analogy with the Freudian psychic apparatus: this-me-super-me).

Plato is strongly influenced by the Eastern tradition which also appears in the myth of the Magi. These offer the child three chests to know if their nature is human, real or divine. The contents of the chests are the material substance corresponding to each of these natures: myrrh – red red resin -, gold and incense.


Plato has a bad conception of pleasure – Pythagorean heritage -: the body seeks pleasure and avoids pain, This only hinders the contemplation of the Good. In his later writings, certain pleasures, such as the aesthetic enjoyment obtained from Beauty, are considered healthy, rejecting the purely intellectual life as too limited.

His conception of motivation is almost Freudian: we have a flood of passionate desires that can be channeled into any part of the soul, into pleasure, personal achievement, or philosophical knowledge and virtue. The impulses can motivate the search for fleeting pleasure or the philosophical ascent towards the world of forms.

Physiology and perception

Given his distrust of perception, he barely spoke of the physiology, Empirical science. His ideas in this regard were conventional among the Greeks. Vision, for example, is caused by the emission of visual rays through our eyes that affect objects in the visual path.

Learning: innatism and associationism

Plato was the first great innate. Since according to him all knowledge is innate, it must exist in every human being from birth. The perceived objects resemble the Forms in which they participate, and this resemblance, together with the instruction, stimulates the rational soul to remember what the Forms look like (Anamnesis). (Analogy with Chomsky’s theory of language, according to which linguistic competence is innate).

Plato a also felt the foundations of associationist doctrine, later a fundamental part of atomism and empiricist philosophy. There are two aspects to the relationship between objects and forms: formal resemblance and the presentation associated with our experience, that is, contiguity. They correspond to the syntagmatic and paradigmatic dimensions described by Jakobson as the constituents of the structure of language.

They are also the laws of the Unconscious, or their basic operations: metaphor as condensation and metonymy as displacement. (Production Aphasia -Drill- versus Understanding Aphasia -Wernicke-). (Analogy with the two types of magic described by Frazer: Polluting magic – by contiguity – and contagious – by similarity -)

Development and education

Plato believed in reincarnation -metempsychosis-. By dying, the rational soul separates from the body and attains the vision of Forms. Depending on the degree of virtue achieved, he then reincarnates somewhere on the phylogenetic scale. When the soul reincarnates into a body full of needs and feelings, it falls into a state of confusion. Education is about helping the rational soul gain control of the body and other parts of the soul.

The main disciple of Plato, Aristotle, Would develop the first systematic psychologya.

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