There would have been a Plato without Plato

By Razib Khan | August 18, 2011 4:20 pm

In the comments of my post “Platonism is useful only when it’s useful” several people made a few references to Plato, as well as Platonism. That is fair and makes sense. And there’s a deep strain of anti-Plato sentiment amongst respectable people (e.g., Karl Popper). I assume of the two ancient Greek philosophers of renown, Plato and Aristotle, most readers would be more sympathetic to the latter. He may have gotten a lot wrong, but Aristotle’s more empirical bent is probably more congenial to many moderns than Plato’s greater reliance on abstract theory.

But I don’t think that we can put Platonism at the feet of Plato. There are deep human intuitions about the nature of reality, which Plato and his followers systematized at an early date. But this systematization would have happened at some point in history, and we would have termed it by some name, which would be reviled and lauded by intellectual partisans of a later age.

Rather than inveigh against Plato, we need to be cognizant and aware of our own biases. The human cognitive toolkit seems to be a faulty statistical machine, and that’s because it leans strongly on ideals. Archetypes, prototypes, whatever you wish to call them. The psychologist Paul Bloom has written about this topic for years, whether speaking of “dualism” or “essentialism.” The details aren’t important. The key is just to observe that some ideas, great or pernicious, are in the air around us, waiting to be clarified and made more precise by a man or movement of genius. But the ultimate root remains basic human nature quite, not the rational reflective mind.

MORE ABOUT: Idealism, Platonism
  • Darkseid

    “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”


  • Chris M

    I don’t get all the Plato hate. A lot of it, Popper & his ilk esp., is based on an unconvincing conflation of his idealism and his allegedly totalitarian politics. And while Platonism doesn’t fit with the modern natural sciences, it’s not like Aristotelianism is any better — and the latter’s insistence that mathematics not be applied to natural phenomenon was a greater impediment to the development of science than anything in Plato.

    FTR, I love ’em both. “To be a friend to Plato is to be a greater friend to truth.”

  • Razib Khan

    and the latter’s insistence that mathematics not be applied to natural phenomenon was a greater impediment to the development of science than anything in Plato.

    this is a great point. aristotle was very wrong on many points. but the big issue between him and plato from my own perspective is that the latter’s relatively “tighter” theoretical framework made it a more coherent model for people to latch on to. aristotle’s incorrectness was more piecemeal, and his retardation of science had to do with his eminence as a greater thinker. plato’s to some extent too, but i do think that the core ideas of platonism are highly attractive to human beings and so are a very stable alternative intellectual equilibrium from modern science.

  • Cory Gross

    Certainly Plato becomes a handy whipping boy because he was the most enduring early thinker to articulate these ideas. As I noted in my comments to the previous post, Gnosticism – the idea of an immortal human soul liberated of the shackles of evil matter and floating up to Heaven – is the most enduring heresy posing as Christianity. This is not because of Plato, though Gnosticism finds its theological ancestor in him. It’s because lots of people just naturally come around to this idea of some transcendent part of selfhood that they imagine to be unconnected to the physical body.

    My favorite contemplation on Plato came in my old Aesthetics class (basically, the philosophy of what is art). He was the go-to guy for everything wrong about how people think about art ^_^

  • Sam McNerney

    What you’ve said is true, but really only for western thought. Although both the eastern and western traditions touch upon dualism and essentialism, it is important to not forget that Plato and Platonism is relevant to not even half the world’s population.

  • Peter Ellis

    …so you’re saying that Platonism is but the earthly shadow of a more perfect system, which we approach via our intuitions? That’s like… du-u-u-u-ude.

  • Razib Khan

    #6, for some reason i don’t find your asides very amusing. that’s no concern of yours really, but if i’m in a bad mood i might just ban you since i don’t experience much + utils if you keep operating in the same manner. i figured i might just warn you so i don’t see quite that capricious (any response to this particular comment by anyone will result in banning. i’m not interested in discussing this issue, i just wanted to note it. comments aren’t fun if commenters are irritating and uninformative).

  • Razib Khan

    What you’ve said is true, but really only for western thought. Although both the eastern and western traditions touch upon dualism and essentialism, it is important to not forget that Plato and Platonism is relevant to not even half the world’s population.

    first, even limiting “western” to the abrahamic religions, you’re around 1/2. though i know you can debate the influence of platonism in islam and judaism (i think personally that all western religions broadly speak engage with, even if they don’t promote, platonism). second, i think much of indian philosophy reflects the same sensibility as platonism. this explains the arguments by some ancients and moderns for a hindu influence upon neoplatonism (both are dominantly monistic for example, though i think hindu monism as dominant view post-dates neoplatonism). do you disagree with this contention? the dominant forms of chinese philosophy are arguably much more pragmatic and empirical without the otherworldly platonic tinge, though i think a more abstract indian element was introduced with buddhism filling the same niche. anyone care to offer up an indigenous chinese equivalent of platonism? i can’t think of one off the top of my head (does daoism count?)

  • Andrew Lancaster

    Actually I would go a bit further and say Plato did not systematize this subject. He laid the ground for that, but much of what he writes on this subject can be, and sometimes is, read as being a going-through of a problem (remember his form of writing was in dialogues) rather than a claim to have found a solution.

  • Maju

    Greek philosophy, excepted maybe the Cynics, ended with the Pre-Socratics. All the rest is junk: fascist ideology cross-dressed as “reason”.

  • Razib Khan

    #10, don’t they have godwin’s law in spain? perhaps u guys get an exception because you were ruled by *real* fascists for a while?

  • Sam McNerney

    Let’s see. I just don’t know enough about Indian philosophy to disagree or agree with you there. So maybe my “not even half of the worlds population” assertion was inaccurate – 30%, 40%, you tell me.

    I do know a bit about chinese philosophy. Confucianism is much more concerns with morals and virtues and how to lead a proper life whereas platonic philosophy (and western in general) focuses on metaphysics and epistemology. This is why we discuss allegory of the cave, watch the matrix, and treat knowledge as objective and absolute. Taoism is very spiritual and also less concerned with metaphysics and epistemology.

    Don’t want to stretch myself too thin though – is there an expert out there?

  • Razib Khan

    Taoism is very spiritual and also less concerned with metaphysics and epistemology.

    just a minor addendum, early daoism seems pretty quasi-scientific in its focus on the quest for immortality. it’s rep kind of went into decline when the elixirs kept killing ppl. i know there were some idealistic trends in chinese thought, but to my knowledge they were marginal or minor. nothing equivalent to platonism or advaita.

  • Ariston

    It’s not a very difficult step to move from “Platonism is only useful when it is useful” (as in your previous post) to “Platonism is only useful when it is accurate”. I don’t see why someone committed to a Platonist or Platonic–derivative worldview should be overly troubled by evolutionary biology. As early as Augustine there is some idea of the “forms” of animals being essentially teleological instead of formally structural. When it comes to the proper understanding of the key insights of Darwin, Linnaeus rather than Plato is the figure standing in the doorway.

  • Chris M

    I think #9 makes a good point, one that gels with your assertion Razib, but approaches it from the opposite angle. Not only would there have been something like Platonism without Plato, but actual existing Platonism isn’t something that just falls out of Plato’s dialogues fully-formed. Plato, IOW, wasn’t (necessarily, obviously) a Platonist.

    And back to Aristotle serving as an impediment to the development of the modern mathematical natural sciences, I think Aristotle’s authoritativeness was a big part of the problem, but not the only one. Aristotle’s physics is in its own way deeply resonant with our intuitions, and arguably more consonant with our common-sense engagement with the world than Platonism. Had the more radical (Averroist) interpretations of Aristotle not brought down the Vatican thunder, who knows how things might’ve gone? I wouldn’t go so far as Duhem does when he says that the Condemnation of 1277 was the birth of modern science, but there’s a grain of truth to it — a grain which ought to stick in the craw of whiggish historians of science.

    For more on the Condemnation of 1277:

  • Razib Khan

    Aristotle’s physics is in its own way deeply resonant with our intuitions, and arguably more consonant with our common-sense engagement with the world than Platonism

    another good point. might revise my assessment here. the main issue seems to be that aristotle was wrong on a lot of small/medium issues/intuitions. plato got at the root of it.

  • Clark

    I think Aristotle has more in common with Plato than a lot of people want to admit. Even his radical change of the forms, which is what most people point to, becomes more problematic when you start asking what prime matter is in Aristotle. (Not that I think modern physics can do much better, despite the attempt to brush such concerns under the rug when people call themselves materialists) As others noted a lot of Aristotle is tied to our intuitions.

    Platonism as folks think about it is also much more tied to various strains of Platonic interpretation in Europe during the Renaissance and then especially in Britain in the early modern era up through the 19th century. In the ancient world it was much more complex. For instance we talk about neo-Platonists now but that’s a made up category by us moderns. Separating out Aristotle from Plato (or even the Stoics) in the ancient world was tricky. Not that we should find that surprising. Take a few of the major philosophers in say the analytic tradition of the 20th century and you’ll find lots of influences and changes over time.

    My personal opinion is that what matters with the rise of real physics (as we think of it) was the mathematization of measurements and theories. Compare Descartes physics with Newton’s and it’s really clear that was the big change. I think you could argue that this is true of many other fields too that go through that move from more qualitative science into quantitative analysis (i.e. math) However before we assume too much from that if there is one area where Platonists still have a presence in the academy it’s in mathematics! (I’m a constructivist myself – but I’d be lying if I hadn’t encountered a bunch of platonists) So Platonism isn’t quite as ridiculous as we portray it. Typically it seems ludicrous because we haven’t analyzed issues at a sufficiently deep level or have a superficial appreciation of how ancient philosophers (or even medieval ones) actually thought.

    My final thought is that Platonism sounds especially ridiculous because we tend to read it as a cosmology (i.e. physics) rather than fundamental ontology. Now even as ontology I find it wrong headed. But it’s just nowhere near as silly as most readings put it. (I’d say that about Berkeley as well who people ridicule even more than Plato when they encounter him)

  • Razib Khan

    #18, could u elaborate? specifically, wut is illuminating/novel about philosophy once you remove ‘natural philosophy’/science.

  • C.

    and his name would have been Aristotle. It is pretty difficult to find a passage in the Platonic corpus that asserts that there are “natural kinds” of animals and plants unequivocally. In the Platonic critique of “platonism” (i.e. the Parmenides), Socrates (young and beautiful) expresses doubt as to whether there are “essences” of physical elements. The Timaeus offers a sort of creationist account of the origin of animal life, but it’s not clear whether that represents more than a “likely story” (sort of like evolutionary psychology?). Platonic essences are not Aristotelian natural kinds–they are normative and criterial, not “universals.” Part of the reason is probably that Plato didn’t think there was more than belief or opinion about biology and zoology. Aristotle, by being a better “platonist” expands the scope of knowledge and the essences (though by transmuting them into something new) to encompass the natural world. Whether an authentically Platonic Platonism is possible or desirable to defend is a different question, but it might be of narrower scope–only accounting for the possibility of mathematical, practical, and ethical knowledge.

    “and the latter’s insistence that mathematics not be applied to natural phenomenon was a greater impediment to the development of science than anything in Plato.”

    Where does Aristotle insist such a thing? There is a complicated story about the conceptual transformation that was necessary fundamentally in mathematics to make it even possible for “mathematics” be applied to certain natural phenomena, but surely Aristotle didn’t deny that mathematics was applicable to astronomical motions. The problem was far deeper than the Popperian inspired blame-game-history-of-philosophy suggests. For Aristotle, the smallest number was 2, in order for modern mathematical physics to be possible required deep changes to the philosophy of mathematics. Blaming Aristotle for impeding modern mathematical physics is far too superficial an understanding of how momentous the development of the conceptuality necessary for that possibility to arrive for thinking.

  • jamie

    Could always see, even from childhood, that lifeless, tautological truths form the foundation of reality, and that material/temporal reality is just an illusion. This perspective has always been intuitively obvious to me. But I’m certain that for the majority of humans, this perspective is deeply counter-intuitive.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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