History of Philosophy: Ancient and Medieval -- Spring, 1997 - Dr. Ess
We will see Socrates and then Plato attempt to "save philosophy" in the face of several complex dilemmas.
Briefly, the philosophical project, initiated by Thales and the Milesian nature philosophers, began as an effort to provide an account (a logos) of the natural order (physis) -- an account based on human reason (logos) and thus resting on assumptions regarding the intelligibility of the universe to human reason. This project, over a period of less than 200 years, results in a diversity of physical theories -- including evolution (first in Anaximander and then Empedocles) and the spectacularly successful atomic theory of Democritus.
Inspired partly by the apparent successes of the physiologoi ("those who give a logos about physis - nature"), the Sophists began with the serious intent to replicate in the domain of ethics and politics what the earlier philosophers had achieved in the domain of physics. However, their search for a human nature and set of ethical and political values which transcended cultural differences and are thus universal, fueled especially by the relativistic tendency of atomism, concluded with a Sophism which argued first of all for ethical relativism (on the basis of the cultural relativism, already well-documented in Socrates' day).
1.a: Describe this development of Sophism more completely, with special attention to the basic argument, which, beginning with cultural relativism, concludes with ethical relativism.
Go on to describe in some detail (a paragraph or two) the cultural and political consequences of the rise of Sophism -- i.e., the rise of a peculiar sort of anarchy, as the individual quest for complete power (in order to always be able to fully satisfy one's desires), justified by ethical relativism, thus lifts up the ruthless tyrant as the happiest man.
Finally, describe in some detail (a paragraph or two) the primary social alternative to this form of Sophism -- i.e., dogmatic or absolutist religion, as represented by "the Old Oligarch" (in Jones)
In this first approach, philosophy -- as the rationally-based enterprise of developing an account of both the physical and ethical/political worlds -- is thus faced with an apparently intractable dilemma:
either we take up reason, only to land in Sophism, the pursuit of tyranny, and an accompanying anarchy --
we abandon reason and return to the social and political stability provided by dogmatic or "absolute" standards imposed by the old religion.
1.b: As carefully as you can, describe how Socrates in Plato's dialogues establishes a middle ground between these two poles of the dilemma. To do so, you will need to provide at least two of the arguments we have seen in support of this middle ground, namely:
i) the analogy between the health of the body and the well-being of the soul, as this analogy establishes the possibility of universal values (discerned by reason) alongside the diversity of individual and cultural values described in cultural relativism;
ii) the use of reason (in contrast with an appeal to sacred text, religious tradition, etc.) in the Crito to establish an understanding of the nature of human reason (as discerning and seeking "the Good") and "good" and "bad" (in terms of the functions of a thing) to establish an ethical principle -- namely, never do evil.
As you carefully recapitulate these arguments, be sure to comment how each of these serves the larger project of establishing a middle ground between Sophistic relativism and dogmatic religion.
A second dimension of the Socratic and Platonic project involves saving philosophy from an epistemological relativism -- one which calls into question the ability of reason to achieve its ambitious goal of providing a coherent account of the order of the universe.
2.a: Explain this epistemological relativism more fully, by describing as carefully as you can the primary historical developments which contribute to it, i.e.,
the inability of the PreSocratic philosophers to establish a consensus on a single physical account -- but rather, the upshot of the PreSocratic project as a bewildering and often contradictory variety of physical accounts, each one of which claims to provide the correct understanding of the natural order; a couple of examples of widely differing accounts would be helpful here.
2.b: How does Plato respond to this epistemological relativism?
To answer this question, you will need to summarize his "theory of Forms," emphasizing especially:
i) the several arguments we have seen which establish the necessity and primacy of the Forms (e.g., the definition of triangleness, Justice, the Good, Beauty) if we are to recognize and know triangles, good acts, beautiful bodies, etc.
As a reminder, these arguments have established:
[A] the difference between a Form (as nonvisual, general [and thus knowable only by the mind] and as perfect) and particular entities (as visual, and thus known by the sense(s), particular, and imperfect);
[B] the Form as more real (as it endures and remains the same), over against a particular manifestation or "image" of the Form (in the sensory domain) as less real (as changing and eventually fading into nothingness);
[C] the Form as necessary to knowledge. These arguments include:
I. the difficulty of arriving at the Forms "from the bottom up" (i.e., by beginning with sense experience), since:
a) it is hard to see how muddling about in the domain of multiple, different, changing, particular, imperfect entities would lead to a single, unchanging, general or universal, perfect "idea" or Form of something, and
b) it would appear that even to recognize what is before one (as a triangle, a square, as beautiful, etc.), one must already have access to the Form as the standard or paradigm by which an entity in the sense world is "known."
II. the psyche's eros, as the desire for completeness, and as left unsatisfied by the many but imperfect beautiful entities (either on the level of sense or of soul). (This is Diotima's argument in the Symposium, and needs especially careful attention.)
ii) how the theory of the Forms,
as it portrays the one perfect, unchanging Form, as knowable only by the mind, and the many imperfect, changing particulars, known by the senses;
and as it portrays the many changing particulars (e.g., the infinite variety of particular triangles) related to the one Form (e.g., the definition of triangleness) in terms of "participation" -- resolves the conflict between Parmenides and Heraclitus by affirming the truth of both sides.
2.c: This last point further requires clarification of how the Platonic notion of "participation" between the Forms and objects of sense, in the face of the radical difference between the Forms and such objects, further reflects what I have presented as Plato's "logic of connection," -- i.e., a logic which allows for connection in the face of radical difference.
As a reminder, we have seen this logic of connection in:
the notion of the "trinitarian" psyche in the Republic as an "organic" unity composed of three distinct parts, each of which contributes to the well-being of the psyche as a whole by performing its proper function in moderation;
this same "organic" conception in the Republic, as the healthy psyche serves as the primary analogy and model for defining justice in the State;
the relationship between body and psyche implied by the eros described in the Symposium, such that erotic path which begins on the level of appetite and body, leads in a continuous way through the level of the soul to the final insight into the Form of Beauty as such;
the allegory of the cave in the Republic, in which the path leading from the cave and the reality of the (least-real) shadows, up to the world of (most-real) things, including the Sun (as the symbol of the Good), is a two-way path -- for the philosopher always returns to the city of the cave;
the use of proportion in the "diagram of the line" in the Republic, where such proportion works by stressing the manifold relationships between shadow : thing :: mathematical entities : Forms.
To respond to this part of the assignment, you will need to fully describe at least one of these notions, and then explain as carefully as you can how it illustrates a "logic of connection." Then compare it briefly with Plato's notion of "participation" as the relationship between the Forms and things.
(What I hope this helps you see is how the notion of "participation," as the assertion that a connection obtains between the Forms and things, in the face of their radical difference is consistent with this same assertion, this same logic, in other places in Plato. This will be helpful as we move to Aristotle and subsequent critics of Plato.)