Plato subordinated sense experience to intuition, memory, and reason for at least three reasons. First, sense experience is corporeal, not mental, which makes it “lower” in his metaphysical scheme of things. Second, the objects of sense experience (appearances) are ephemeral in contrast to the unchanging objects (Eternal Forms) of reason, memory, and intuition. Third, sense experience is subjective and perspectival in contrast (he held) to the objective and fixed processes of reason, memory, and intuition. Thus, he postulated the world of eternal “Forms” or “Ideas,” hypothesized that they were intuitively accessible to the mind in its pre-corporeal existence, and concluded that human knowledge, when it occurs, amounts to rationally uncovering what the mind already knows intuitively and remembers.
Plato thought well of the mind and its processes (such as intuition, memory, and reason) and not so well of the body and its processes (such as sense experience). This is nicely illustrated in the Meno, where Plato offers an amazing account of how a slave boy “learns” geometry—the boy’s apparent experiential learning being explained away as the recovery of preexisting intuitive knowledge, buried in memory until it is unearthed by dialectical reasoning. While we may wonder whether people have preexisting intuitions to remember, we should note that thinking always presupposes the occurrence of some sort of data to work with and never proceeds without some sort of memory coming into play.
Why are the mind and its processes held in such comparatively high esteem? In part, it is because Plato held the mind’s substance to be closer to that of the Forms or that of God— bodily experience, in contrast, being subject to all the limitations of the flesh. Plato is not alone, of course, in marking such a dichotomy.
1) St. Paul elevated the soul (pneuma) over the flesh (sarx). That soul was not the same thing as Plato’s cognitive soul (psyche), of course, and cognition was of less interest to Paul than salvation, but the maneuvers are congruent.
2) Descartes’ mind/body dualism is another parallel.
In part, it is because Plato held the mind’s objects (Ideas) to be more stable, permanent, absolute, or universal than those of sense experience (appearances).
1) The cave myth in The Republic shows how ephemeral Plato took appearances to be.
2) The features of the cave are an allegory for the world and our place in it: the flickering shadows on the wall (appearance), bondage (our embodiment), objects (reality) that cast the shadows, and fire—and, ultimately, the Sun—behind it all.
In part, it is because Plato held the mind’s processes (intuition, memory, and reason) to be relatively error free when compared to the process of sense experience.
Here is Plato’s argument in a nutshell. Note his metaphysical proposal (J) and its dependent hypotheses (K and L).
A. Premise: The appearances of things do change.
B. Premise: The essences of things don’t change.
C. Inference: So the essences and the appearances of things are not the same.
D. Premise: The reality of things resides in their essences, not in their appearances.
E. Inference: So reality is unchanging, or (the same thing) what does change is not reality.
F. Premise: Appearances are all that we have sensory access to.
G. Inference: So we do not have sensory access to reality.
H. Inference: So the senses cannot supply the content for our thoughts about reality.
I. Inference: So the content of our thoughts about reality must be supplied in some other way.
J. Metaphysical proposal or inference: Perhaps reality lies in the world of the Forms and is directly and intuitively accessible to cognitive souls that are free of bodily encumbrances and distractions.
K. Inference: If so, then preexisting, non-embodied intellects would do the trick.
L. Inference: If that is the case, then embodied humans’ thoughts about reality, when and if they occur, could rely on their remembering and using what their minds already know.
This package raises many questions. Here are the first three (to think about): A. The premises of the argument (A, B, D, and F) are insecure for various reasons; thus, the inferences based on them (C, E, G, H, and I) are not secure either. B. The metaphysical proposal (J) and its dependent hypotheses (K and L) presuppose a great many facts not in evidence. But if these presuppositions are insecure, so are the proposal and its dependent hypotheses. C. Plato’s mistrust of sense experience and reliance on suppositional recollections leaves gaps in the input that reason needs in order to do its work.
[Courtesy: Professor James Hall]