Trajectory of thought: Plato, Aristotle and Descartes Essay
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Paper type: Essay
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Man is, arguably, a creature bound “to penetrate below the facts of everyday life” so as to “think about what is real, true, valuable and meaningful in human life” (Lavine, 1982, p.2). The desire to know – or to seek the truth – about his humanity, the world and even the Infinite reality has indeed pushed man to engage in the admirable art of deep thinking, i.e., philosophy. Hundred after hundreds of schools of thoughts, as indeed thousand after thousands of learned men and women, have emerged in history bringing their own suggestions to answer the many puzzling questions in life.
This trend eventually came to be known as the history of philosophy.
Rationale and Methodology
This paper attempts to present the thoughts of three philosophers who – more or less – all had the same aim: provide a philosophy in search for the truth. In the course of this work, the theories that were submitted by Plato, Aristotle and Rene Descartes shall be presented.
These philosophers are just three from among the long list of thinkers who had something to say about the world (and how one ought to properly understand it). What this study attempts to specifically achieve though, is to present their respective teachings, draw a line between what makes them different from one another, and establish their contributions in the larger context philosophical discourses.
This study is both expository and analytical in approach and content. A number of sources shall be cited throughout the work; and they are to be used to substantiate the points that would be shortly developed.
Plato’s myth and the divided line
The first thinkers who – perhaps officially – identified themselves as philosophers came from the place of Ionia, then part of the larger Grecian province along the sea of Mediterranean (Marias, 1967, p. 11). Now called as Pre-Socratics, i.e., philosophers who came before Socrates, these thinkers were said to have engaged in thoughtful quest to understand the nature of the world. From them later emerged Socrates and his erstwhile pupil Plato – the man who would put philosophy at another level of maturity.
Using the Pre-Socratics and most of Socrates’ ideas as basis for the construction of his own philosophy, Plato too “had wrestled with the problem of explaining physical nature by asking, what is the one basic material out of which the world is made” (Lavine, 1982, p. 23). Still, Plato had all his fascination directed towards a philosophy that seeks to unravel that “eternal” being, out from which emanated the world of things that neither had perfection nor eternality. In the process, what Plato created was a metaphysics marked by stark dualism – a dualism which distinguishes what is real and what merely derives existence from something (Lavine, 1982, p. 26).
Plato’s infamous “divided line” theory of knowledge stems from a peculiar way of understanding the world. Simply put, Plato’s epistemology derives from his metaphysics or, more specifically, from his cosmology. One can glimpse at how Plato understands the basic formation of reality by looking at his ideas embedded in his equally infamous “allegory of the cave” – a story about rude awakening of a man, who, after finding his way out of the miserable darkness of being imprisoned in the cave, realized that there was more to behold than mere shadows found within it.
The myth of the cave illustrates how Plato believed that the truth about reality is known not through human senses (Lavine, 1982, p. 29); put in other words, one would not arrive at what is truly real if one were to dwell solely on what human senses can provide. The myth provides an analogy for it – most of what is seen is actually not reality itself. The truth behind reality, Plato insisted, was that it consisted in the world of Ideas – “metaphysical entities which contained the true being of things” (Marias, 1967, p. 46). The things that one perceives through the sense, because they are imperfect and ephemeral, are merely “founded on the being of Ideas in which things share” (Marias, 1967, p. 47).
Plato’s theory of knowledge flows from this cosmology. Since for Plato, the constitution of reality is composed of both the world of things and the world of Ideas, knowledge arrived at from either things or Ideas constitutes a dichotomy as well. Plato maintained that the visible world affords a person only imagining and perception, and not knowledge per se. True knowledge, he contends, is arrived at only when one assimilates an understanding of the world of Ideas (Lavine, 1982, p. 32).
Plato, it must be mentioned, is confronted with a difficulty here: how can one assimilate knowledge about the world of Ideas if it is “not directly accessible” to human consciousness in the very first place? Herein Plato proposes another theory; yet another myth, that is. He contends that the origin of human soul is from the world of Ideas; and being in that previous state, the soul has not completely lost its grasp of it. The only way by which one can somehow arrive at a knowledge of its previous state is to remember – that is, to treat the world of things as “stimulus” in view of raising human thoughts to the knowledge about Ideas (Marias, 1967, p. 48).
Aristotle’s scientific inquiry
As Plato etched his name in the pages of philosophical enterprise with his excellent attempt to understand the true nature of the world, Aristotle came into the philosophical world with a metaphysics to match Plato’s. In fact, Aristotle would critique much of what Plato suggested. A salient aspect of Aristotle’s metaphysics involves a criticism on the Platonic general theory of knowledge – that is, true knowledge is arrived at only as a form of inner contemplation of the world of Ideas.
From Aristotle, one notices a shift from discernment to demonstration. Put in other words, one arrives at a workable knowledge of the world by looking at the causes and principles of things (Marias, 1967, p. 72). One author succinctly puts the idea: “for Aristotle, to have scientific knowledge of a fact, it is not enough to know that it is true; you must also know why it is true” (Robinson, 1985, p. 11). In fact, this shift that Aristotle suggested made him discover the intricate connection which knowledge has of the world that is being known. One finds that Aristotle combines the process of “knowing” with the process with which “being” actually takes shape. His celebrated “four causes” enables one to learn how this is so.
To Aristotle’s mind, there are at least four causes that can help explain the nature and existence of anything that is encountered in the world: material, formal, efficient and formal. It may help briefly explain what these four causes mean. First, material cause refers to the physical material out of which something is made (e.g. table is made of wood); second, formal cause refers to the form which makes the thing to be as it is (e.g. the shape or form which makes a table as it is); third, efficient cause refers to the “principle of motion” which explains how the things came to be (e.g., the carpenter who put the table into being); and fourth, formal cause refers to the purpose why a thing exists (e.g., table was made to be used as desk) (Marias, New York, p. 72).
This teaching is important since Aristotle’s methodology in introducing formal causes of things stems from an understanding of reality that is hylemorphic (or matter and form) in nature. Aristotle believes that the things of this world are further classifiable as a combination of matter and form – matter being the material composition with which a thing is made of, and form being the principle which makes things as they are. Both are needed insofar as the interplay between them explains the principles of actuality and potentiality of a thing.
But what is peculiar here is that this Aristotelian theory cannot seem to afford a complete scientific knowledge about something since one need to “discover their genesis (material cause) and their consequences (formal cause)” all at once (Lavine, 1982, p. 72). As in most cases, many things evolve and undergo certain changes. One cannot therefore know its material and formal components fully if the thing has not stopped evolving. Thus, for all its promises, one can say that the Aristotelian epistemology leaves a room for skeptics to doubt whether one can in fact arrive at a scientific knowledge according to his terms.
Descartes’ quest for absolute certainty
The period following the era of Aristotle would be marked by long adherence to his philosophy, and the glorious flowering of Scholasticism. But when the modern era entered, the world saw the rise of technological inventions and scientific advancements that then resulted to two major epistemological tendencies: “the use of sensory observation and experimentation” and the use of “rational sciences” such as mathematics (Lavine, 1982, p. 72). In the process, the atmosphere of the modern era saw severe criticisms against the futility of Scholastic philosophy in human affairs. Skepticism, one may say, also became a commonplace affair.
Rene Descartes is a philosopher born from this period of great changes. Since he grew from an atmosphere of doubt, he became a skeptic himself. His skepticism however is marked by a “vow to suspend judgment about everything” in order to arrive a knowledge that is so certain, it is doubt-proof (Broughton, 2002, p. 1). What Descartes wanted to achieve was an absolute certainty that rises above the ashes of doubt. To achieve this, Descartes published his Meditations in the hope of finding the first principles of philosophy from which, because it is so certain, everything else will spring with certitude as well.
What Descartes arrived at was a certainty that only his own existence can afford. Says Descartes: “While I wished to think, thus, that everything was false, it is necessarily had to be true that I, who was thinking this, was something; and observing this truth – I think, therefore I am – was so firm and so sure that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were incapable of shaking it, I judge that I could accept it without a scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking” (Discourse on Methods, Part IV) (Marias, 1967, p. 214).
To entertain doubts is part of Descartes’ whole philosophical program. In fact, he even induced it exaggeratedly to suppose that, in order to test everything with doubt, there can be a God who deceives the way human belief is established (Lavine, 1982, p. 97). One may call this hyperbolic, i.e., exaggerated. The aim is much like how modern day logic is developed with the purpose of providing a correct reasoning free from errors and uncertain suppositions (Copi & Cohen, p. 4)
Descartes, one must know, is also confronted with difficulties. Since he established certitude in reference to the self, what he introduced was an idealism that puts the self at the center. It created a dualism therefore (Marias, 1967, p. 223); it separated the certitude of the self from the uncertainty of the world; and what results is a dichotomy between certitude and doubt that only the self can overcome. Still, one can say that Descartes philosophy is an example of new thought bringing fresh ideas into the philosophical enterprise. His quest to seek for the truth is manifested in his effort to seek for certainty amidst a world filled with ambiguities.
What stands out to be of paramount importance here is not only the answers that these philosophers offered to guide the world out of its otherwise sorry ignorance. In most cases, their theories were rejected, refined or just partially accepted by later generations of thinkers. Instead, in the art of thinking, what is more essential is not the answers but the questions that aim to clarify. Plato, Aristotle and Descartes have been prime examples of those who sought answers but raising questions after question. In the art of thinking, the men who ask the fundamental question “why” are the true geniuses. After all, the ones who are not afraid to entertain second thoughts about the things mostly being taken for granted are the people to whom the whole history of philosophy must be attributed.
Broughton, J. (2002). Descartes’ Method of Doubt. New Jersey: Princeton University
Copi, I. & Cohen C. Introduction to Logic (Tenth Edition). Prentice Hall International
Lavine, T. (1982). From Socrates to Sarte. New York: Bantam Books
Marias, J. (1967). History of Philosophy. New York: Dover
Robinson, T. (1995). Aristotle in Outline. Indianapolis: Hacket