Plato’s theory of ideas

It is often said that Socrates was the father of Western philosophy as we understand it today, but these merits did not serve to eclipse the contributions of his disciple Plato.

This Athenian, born in the fifth century; C., began to be interested in continuing to develop the moral philosophy that had characterized his teacher, ended up creating something very different, focused on the nature of what exists rather than what needs to be done and what isn’t. This contribution is known as Plato’s theory of ideas.

The ideal world, according to Plato

Plato returned to the fundamental questions from which the pre-Socratic philosophers started: What is there? How does the cosmos work? The Athenian noted that while the great ideals that guide the actions of men, such as good and justice, are perfect and valid everywhere regardless of the context, the world around us is constantly changing, depending on all that. takes place in time and space: trees grow and dry. outside, people get old and disappear, mountains are changed by storms, the sea changes shape according to the wind, etc.

Outraged. nothing we can know about our environment is universal, Because it depends on each person’s point of view or even on the information we have. An ox can be relatively large when viewed from a distance, but if you approach it you can see that the tree next to it is practically a bush and therefore the animal is rather small.

And yet, behind the things we see, there seem to be ideas by which we understand this chaos of changing matter that shapes the landscapes we pass through: when we see an olive tree, we know it’s a tree, and when we see a pine tree, which is very different, we also know that it is a tree. Ideas serve to enable us to think correctly and not get lost in constant confusion, because if they are valid, they are valid everywhere.

But, according to Plato, ideas were not part of the same plane of existence that surrounds us in the physical world. For him, when we see different types of chairs and recognize them as such, we do not limit ourselves to recognizing the common physical properties of these objects, but we evoke an idea of ​​”chair” which exceeds them.

The material is made up of shadows

According to the philosophy of this thinker, behind every element of the physical world there is an ideal, the perfect idea of ​​everything, which appears in our mind more or less imperfectly but which certainly does not emerge from the realm of what is. material, because it belongs to the world of ideas, a place of perfect, universal and immutable elements. This concept is at the heart of Plato’s theory of ideas.

like that, the reality that we perceive through the senses is for Plato fundamentally a deception, A set of bad copies of the elements that make up the world of ideas, each with imperfections that take it away from its true essence. For example, geometric figures exist only in ideas, because no element of nature faithfully reproduces them: not even more or less spherical bodies, such as bubbles or water droplets, form a sphere.

The truth is in the ideas

Plato did not limit himself to pointing out that there is an insurmountable gap between the world of ideas and that of material things; too much he defended the idea that the truth belonged to the first kingdom and not to the second. To prove it, he resorted to mathematics, as the Pythagorean sects had done: geometric and numerical relationships are always true in themselves, regardless of what happens in the world of matter.

In the same way, Plato came to believe that the truth exists beyond what our senses can perceive. If math and geometry are true regardless of what we can find around us, there must be a realm of ideas in which they can all be found.

A place where there is the perfect idea of ​​chair, flower, river and everything that exists. He embodied this idea in one of the most memorable allegories, known as the Myth of the Cave: The truth exists even though no one has been able to access it due to the limitations of life in the physical world.

Innate ideas according to Plato

But Plato’s theory of ideas posed a question that could not be ignored: how is it that being the world of ideas and that of material things two separate domains, we come into contact with both? To answer this, the Athenian philosopher started from the idea that what we identify with our person is, in fact, the combination of two elements: the body and the soul.

Our mind, linked to our self-awareness and our capacity to think, is in fact an entity belonging to the world of ideas which, although eternal, has been temporarily locked in a material prison (our body).

The body, on the other hand, has senses for knowing what is going on in the physical world, but it is imperfect, easy to damage, and is also subject to the deception of appearances, while the soul has reason. belongs to the world of ideals, it has the innate capacity to evoke the elements of the world of ideas. For Plato, therefore, to know is to remember through the use of reason, to reappear images and concepts in our consciousness that we have already taken with us since our birth and which correspond to an eternal and universal kingdom.

The role of the philosopher

According to Plato, the task of the philosopher is to avoid the analysis of the appearances of the physical world, populated by deceptive forms, And focus on accessing perfect ideas through the use of reason. This function is also expressed in his allegory of the Platonic cave.

But this is not as romantic as it sounds: this philosopher advocated a model of political organization in which government was essentially exercised by an oligarchy of thinkers, and proposed strong segregation by social class.

The theory of ideas is therefore a proposition of what exists, but also of how reliable knowledge can be obtained and how this knowledge should be administered. In other words, it addresses both the branch of the philosophy of ontology and that of epistemology and politics.

What remains of the theory of ideas?

Today, if Platonic philosophy is rarely advocated in academic circles, it continues to exert a remarkable influence on our way of thinking.

Whenever we imagine the truth as something independent of the events that take place in the world, we will reproduce some part of Plato’s theory of ideas without realizing it.

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