A Philosophical History of Psychology, Cognition, and Consciousness: Plato

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Brett in his work “The History of Psychology” claims that Plato continued the epistemological tradition of the Sophists and Socrates and he also added that Plato ended up in a position that the Sophists and Socrates would not be sympathetic with. We argued in an earlier essay that it is misleading to place the Sophists and Socrates inside the same pair of brackets simply because there is clearly a natural and spontaneous antagonism between the assumptions of these two positions. It can also be argued that Platonic Philosophy is a natural and logical continuation of the development of Socratic philosophy and a prototype for his pupil’s Metaphysically based hylomorphic theory. Furthermore, Plato’s work is indebted to Parmenides, a fact that is underestimated in many classical and modern accounts  including A Kenny’s “A New History of Western Philosophy”:

“But while the (Platonic) realm of the Ideas is unchanging, it is not uniform or homogeneous like Parmenides Being: Being is undifferentiated and single, whereas there are many different Ideas in some kind of relation to each other. They appear to be hierarchically ordered under the Idea of the Good, which appears to trump any notion of Being(Republic 6, 509b). No doubt the other Ideas owe it to the Idea of the Good that they are ideas at all.”(p207)

The passage in the Republic that is referred to above(6,509b) follows:

“Therefore, say, that not only being known is present in the things known as a consequence of the good, but also existence and being are in them besides as a result of it, although the good is not being but is still beyond being, exceeding it in dignity and power.”

Parmenides Idea of “The One” would actually have been a better comparison point for Kenny. Plato has not replaced “The One” by “The Good” but probably believed that they are in some sense logically identical in the way that Christians later came to identify God and “The Good”. The One, according to Parmenides includes both Being and not Being in very much the same way in which the Idea of the Good includes the idea of the not Good.

This area of reflection is right at the heart of the philosophical endeavour and it is not surprising therefore that instead of arguments for his position Plato produces three allegories amongst which is the allegory of the Sun in book 6 of the Republic where Socrates is arguing the following:

“Therefore, say that what provides the truth to the things known and provides the power to the one who knows is the Idea of the Good. And as the source of knowledge and truth you can understand it to be a thing known: but as far as these two are–knowledge and truth—if you believe that it is something different from them and still fewer than they, your belief will be right. As for knowledge and truth, just as in the other region it is right to hold light and sight sunlike, but to believe them to be the sun is not right: so, too, here,to hold these two to be like the good is right, but to believe that either of them is the good is not right”(Republic 6 508e)

This passage is highly suggestive of two facts that run contrary to the claims of Brett and Kenny, namely that Plato is very much concerned with Metaphysics and Ethics and their relation to epistemology. The line of development of the philosophy of the Sophists, therefore can not be seen to run through either Socrates or Plato. This is reinforced by appreciating the next link in this chain of continuation, namely the Philosophy of Aristotle that is equally antagonistic to the relativism and “scientific” pragmatism of the Sophists.  We also fail to find any commitment to subjective individualism of the kind one encounters in Sophist philosophizing in the Philosophy of Aristotle.

At least two other dialogues testify both to the metaphysical commitments of Plato and to his proto-Aristotelian positions in Politics and Science. In “The Laws” for example, Socrates has been replaced by an anonymous Athenian as the leading protagonist, and Philosophers have also disappeared from the government of the ideal Callipolis of Magnesia. Laws are no longer Parmenidean unchanging entities and even the best of them are open to reform. The Metaphysics of change has caused several waves of change that appears to have swept the Republic into the sea. Education is now the foundation of the political system and this can be seen even in the demand for pedagogical explanations of the laws as well as in the need to prevent impiety which sanctifies not only a proto-monotheistic Aristotelian God but also the human race.

“The Timaeus”  is a late work of Plato’s which deals, in metaphysical spirit, with the history of the Universe and life forms. In the beginning was chaos until the soul was infused into this “living chaos”. Life was, it is argued, present in some form in the chaos. It is clear that Aristotle’s matter/form distinction is anticipated in this work. In Raphaels “School of Athens” we find Plato holding this work whilst pointing upward toward the Good Creator. Form and principle for Aristotle are synonymous and although it is the case that Aristotle’s work the  “Metaphysics” opens with the claim “All men desire to know” much of this work is devoted to the answering of so-called aporetic questions, an activity which despite the claim that Being has many meanings, clearly is in search of the first principles of Philosophy.

Aristotle was also a significant figure in biology. The Timaeus provides a description of the body that must have clearly interested and Inspired Aristotle. Plato’s account is that the organism is embedded in a process of creation that is driven by a final end or telos. It is, for example, claimed that this creation process:

“divided the veins about the head and interlaced them about each other in order that they might form an additional link between the head and the body, and that the sensations from both sides might be diffused throughout the body.”

Plato is here, rather surprisingly, given his earlier arguments against materialism, giving us a material account of the body. He goes on to speak of Perception in terms of the motion involved in both the objects and the processes of activating the organs of the subject. Plato also surprisingly embarks on a discussion of the desire for nutrition as a fundamental activity of the composite body-soul. The soul part of this complex apparently has two creators: the rational part of the soul is the result of the creation of God and the lower irrational part(also divided into two parts) the creation of the demiurge. Thus is created a hierarchy of soul functions that we also find in Aristotle’s reflections on the soul. Desires arising anywhere in the hierarchy can in principle affect any other part of the hierarchy. The soul, too, begins its life in chaos and spends its life attempting to establish a state of equilibrium: a state that is always unstable because of a fundamental dependence upon the ever-changing Heraclitean external world. Out of this initial chaos at birth, sensation emerges as the organs in general(including the brain) and the organs of perception, in particular, establish relations with each other and with the external world. The sentient parts of the organism are obviously a key to the successful relationship with the external world. Sensations of pleasure and pain are caused when the “motions” a particular organ is subjected to, suits its receptivity function: pain arises when the organ is “irritated” by the external stimulus. These thoughts display a dual aspect approach to the person: firstly the organism is viewed as an object surrounded by an external world in flux and secondly, the organism is under the aspect of a causa sui of motions and activities in the world. Brett has this to say on this topic:

“From one point of view man is an organism in contact with the world around him, and he must, therefore, be studied as an object among objects, from another he is the centre of a world which may or may not have its objective counterpart, a world of ideas which must in some degree be subjective. In discussing perceptions we take up the cognitive aspect of man’s life and all that we should now call subjective, in a sense hardly appreciated by Plato.”

Brett is espousing a scientific notion of subjectivity that is not in accordance with what Parmenides and modern followers of Aristotle and Kant would call “The Way of the Truth” which must include the truths or knowledge we possess of man and his perception of, and reasoning about, the world. R. S. Peters in his edited version of Brett’s work, “The History of Psychology” discusses the scientific error of confusing thought about an activity with that activity itself, thus preferring a description of the activity to an explanation for the activity. In the context of this debate, sensations are certainly something caused to happen in relation to the body of a man, but under another aspect when a man perceives(pays attention to these sensations) he does so in accordance with ideas that partially determine the object of his perception. This latter perspective is clearly expressed in a number of Plato’s works: the physical oak tree that one may perceive “participates” in the idea or principle of the oak tree(i.e. what it is that makes the oak tree the oak tree that it is). Scientific objectivity assumes a beginning of knowledge in particulars and charts an ascent into the realm of generalization whereas Plato’s view is clearly that: whatever the nature of the origins of knowledge, the general cognitive attitude associated with knowledge is that which understands particulars in terms of general ideas or “forms” or principles. A principle is a generalization and belongs to the category of the universal: a principle is categorically related to its particulars. This is to be contrasted with scientific hypothetical generalizations that for example relate particular causes to particular effects. The major problem at issue, of course, is how to characterize the category of universal ideas. This issue is often mistakenly described in terms of causation, i.e. in terms of how it is that we come to acquire these ideas and Plato clearly ventured into this territory in his work, the Timaeus. Aristotle’s attitude toward these two aspects of investigation(man, the object, man the agent) is more complex and more transparent. Aristotle via his theory of change characterized four different kinds of explanations, two of which are concerned with man the object and two of which concerned with man the agent. Aristotle in his discussion of this “how” question related to the acquisition of knowledge couched his account in terms of the soul and its power to abstract from the differences between particulars that are experienced, thus focussing on the active agent rather than the passive object of this learning process.

Metaphysics is a holistic study and encourages the division of wholes into parts only if the parts retain important characteristics of the whole(in the way that characterizing man as a swarm of atoms does not). It is this relation of the parts to the whole that permits logical investigations to arrive at knowledge that cannot be reasonably doubted. If the soul is a principle the question that naturally arises is whether a principle can have parts that have characteristics of the whole. Both Plato and Aristotle believe this to be the case and are in agreement that there are logical arguments for dividing the soul into parts. The Republic contains an argument by Socrates to the effect that, if the soul did not have parts, the fact that a soul could both want to drink some water because it is thirsty and at the same time not want to drink the water because it might be poisoned, would be a contradiction. It is not a contradiction because the soul does have at least two parts. This same reasoning can be applied to generate a soul composed of three parts: Reason, Spirit, and Appetite. This logical reasoning is not moreover academically isolated from the world of experience. We can all see, Plato argues, forms of human life in which one of these parts dominate. In the wealthy man’s life, we can see the presence of the virtue of temperance or the vice of superfluity. In the spirited man’s life, we can see the presence of courage and ambition. In the life of the reasoning man, we can detect the presence of the virtue of wisdom. Plato’s allegory of the cave and the allegory of the divided line illustrate these forms of life by using a cognitive scale of imagination, belief, hypothetical mathematical knowledge, and categorical philosophical knowledge. Science, Plato would argue in defense of himself against the accusation of resorting to the subjective that the subjective belongs to a lower form of life than the philosophical-metaphysical knowledge required by the examined life led by the wise man. Science, in response, can always redescribe the abstract categorical in its own concrete hypothetical terms, and this is certainly happening when it comes to the interpretation of certain key judgments relating to the soul. One such judgment is the claim that the soul is immortal. We pointed out earlier the debt that Socrates owed to Anaxagoras and the categorical metaphysical claim that “All is mind”.  Many commentators have difficulty in understanding, for example, what is meant by “soul” or “mind” as these terms occur in the reflections on immortality by  Socrates in Plato’s Apology and the dialogue of the Phaedo. Kenny in his “New History of Western Philosophy” has the following to say on this issue:

“Socrates in Plato’s Apology appears to be agnostic about the possibility of an afterlife. Is death, he wonders, a dreamless sleep or is it a journey to another world to meet the glorious dead?…. The Platonic Socrates of the Phaedo, however, is a most articulate protagonist of the thesis that the soul not only survives death but is better off after death.”(p214)

In interpreting the passages in these dialogues Kenny, unnecessarily concretizes or reifies the soul instead of examining the possibility that a better interpretation of psuche is to regard it as a principle. The Timaeus characterizes the soul in terms of a hierarchy of functions all interconnected. The lower parts of the hierarchy are obviously connected to bodily desires and appetites and these are supposedly regulated by the principle or rule of temperance. Kenny, also, arguably, insufficiently appreciates the use of allegory or metaphorical language in the characterization of the whole and the relation of these parts to the whole and to each other. He claims, for example, in response to this quote from the Phaedo:

“Thought is best when the mind is gathered into itself, and none of these things trouble it–neither sounds nor sights nor pain, nor again any pleasure–when it takes leave of the body and has as little as possible to do with it.”

Kenny also makes the following claim:

“So philosophers in pursuit of truth keep their souls detached from their bodies. But death is the separation of the soul from the body: hence a true philosopher has throughout his life been craving for death.”(65C)

One can no more separate a principle explaining the behaviour of a human being from the body producing that behaviour than you can separate the law of gravitation from falling or orbiting bodies: or if you believe you can separate the principle from the matter than  this merely calls  for a metaphysical theory explaining the nature of this separation. Of course, it is the case that one can argue that Plato owes us more of an explanation for the relation of this principle to our human activities of perceiving, imagining, believing, knowing, reasoning etc. One can, however, perhaps better appreciate Aristotle’s replacement of Platonic allegory with theoretical explanations and justifications.

The words “another world” occurred in an earlier discussion and the question we need to ask in this context is: “if this is a metaphysical expression what is its meaning?”. One response to this is to deny that the statement is metaphysical. When Socrates died there is a sense in which he continues to survive in at least two non-metaphysical respects. He is, in a sense present now in this discussion and perhaps will be present forever in discussions in the future. His physical ancestors might also be with us. This world we now live in might for Socrates have been the other world Socrates was metaphorically referring to. It is also the case that it is not at all difficult to imagine Socrates in the company of Homer, Parmenides, Heraclitus Anaxagoras etc. as well as all the great philosophers that succeeded him. Of course, there is no sense in which Socrates is actually here with us and that is because we believe that he is dead and also that death is the end of that body which was sustained by the principle of Socrates. We still, however, have access to the principle of Socrates via our thought about him and our reflections on his philosophy. That he is not actually or concretely here and now present means that what is meant by his reflections is that he is imagining himself to be dead and imagining “another world”, a very reasonable metaphor in the circumstances.

In the dialogue Phaedo, Simius and Cebes felt that the Greeks of their time would reject the idea that the soul could survive the body. In the light of the above reflections, the cognitive attitude of these Greeks is probably founded upon the belief that the absence of activity in the current perceptible world entails the absence of the principle responsible for that activity. It does not entail that this principle can survive in some concrete form in the discourse of others about Socrates. Claiming, as some do, that Socrates that because Socrates was “imagining” another world and that this was, therefore, “subjective”  is not a helpful characterization of the cognitive attitude involved in this context.

For Plato, there are intermediate soul functions between the passive receptive functions associated with sensations and the more advanced functions that actively think about these affections. These intermediate functions include mental powers such as memory, mental association, emotion, and imagination. Emotions apparently are caused by violent motions or stimuli. Stimulation of sensation to the extent that the organ is well adapted to the stimulus produces a state of equilibrium or pleasure and these are the states we generally want to experience. These are referred to as “complete states”. They are recorded in memory, which produces ideas/desires for the purposes of recollection or repetition. these can be simple ideas such as the idea of water when we are thirsty or more complex ideas such as that of  “warm drink”. These states are obviously connected to cognitive states and attitudes because we know what we want. Brett has this to say on the issue:

“The body never has knowledge, however indispensable an instrument it might be to the attainment of knowledge in some cases:and therefore naturally the body is not the seat of desires or emotions. The soul, when affected by desire is in a condition essentially painful: for desire is consciousness of incompleteness. But there is no desire totally devoid of pleasure, for desire is a tendency to greater perfection, and that in itself, is pleasant.”

Needing or wanting may have its roots in the body but the consequent conscious desire is that which satisfies this corporeal need or want. The object that satisfies this desire, namely,  involves conscious reflection on a former experience. The mind recalls this object by means of an idea. In the “Way of Opinion,” there are false opinions that attempt to unite ideas that ought not to be united. Correct opinion unites ideas correctly but the result is not understood as part of the system of ideas it actually belongs to. It is this latter understanding that is involved in the “Way of the Truth”. In this hierarchy of functions, then, sensation and feeling(emotion) are obviously not at the level of knowledge in relation to the Way of the Truth because knowledge involves a systematic relation of ideas to each other. It is this systematic relation of ideas that is the foundation for the logical truth making relations established by the highest of the soul functions, namely Reason. The wise man, it should be emphasized, is the man who has perfected a large number of powers in the hierarchy of powers and this can be seen by those who know in the contemplative and examined form of life he leads. The wise man grasps and understands the ends of life that are embedded in a human nature that generates the goods of the virtues at various levels of the hierarchy of the soul’s powers. This final integration of the parts of the soul is expressed in the Greek term areté(virtue) which is the mark of the wise man who does the right thing at the right time in the right way. The wise man knows that his time will come to an end: he knows that is,  that in accordance with an ancient prophecy which has been confirmed by everything he knows, he will die. He furthermore knows and has reasoned his way to the conviction that there will be no further life after death. Death is a final end for all living things. He knows he can imagine another world but it will not be filled with bodiless spirits. The world he imagines will be filled with living things that will die and his presence will be metaphorical, something like a presence, but not a living breathing presence: it will be an imagined presence based on reasoning. When his religious friends tell him that he can expect another life after this one he knows that they are not actively using their imagination, their imagination is rather being used by a primitive desire or wish not to die. He knows they are phantasising