PHIL 176: Death

Lecture 7

 - Plato, Part II: Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul


The discussion of Plato’s Phaedo continues, presenting more arguments for the existence and immortality of the soul. One such argument is “the argument from the nature of the forms,” which states that because the forms are non-physical objects and cannot be grasped by something physical like the body, it follows that they must be grasped by the soul which must be non-physical as well. This argument is followed by the “argument from recycling” and “the argument from recollection.”

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video


PHIL 176 - Lecture 7 - Plato, Part II: Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul

Chapter 1. Review of Plato’s Heaven: Platonic Forms [00:00:00]

Professor Shelly Kagan: We’ve begun to turn to Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, and what I started doing last time was sketching the basic outlines of Plato’s metaphysics — not so much to give a full investigation of that — clearly we’re not going to do that here — but just to provide enough of the essential outlines of Plato’s metaphysical views so that we can understand the arguments that come up later in the Phaedo, basically all of which or many of which presuppose something — certain central aspects about Plato’s metaphysical views.

The key point behind his metaphysics then was the thought that, in addition to the ordinary empirical physical world that we’re all familiar with, we have to posit the existence of a kind of second realm, in which exist the Platonic — as they’re nowadays called — the Platonic forms or Platonic ideas. The sort of thing that perhaps we might call or think of as abstract objects or abstract properties. And the reason for positing these things is because we’re clearly able to think about these ideas, and yet, we recognize that the ordinary physical world — although things may participate in them to varying degrees — we don’t actually come across these objects or entities in the physical world. So that we can talk about things being beautiful to varying degrees, but we never come across beauty itself in the actual empirical world. We are able to talk about the fact that two plus one equals three, but it’s not as though we ever come across numbers — number three itself — anywhere in the empirical world.

A further point that distinguishes the empirical world from this — this realm of Platonic ideal objects — is that indeed they — there’s something perfect about them. They don’t change. In contrast, physical objects are constantly changing. Something might be short at one point and become tall at another point, ugly at one point and become beautiful — like the ugly duckling. It starts out ugly and becomes a beautiful swan. In contrast, justice itself never changes. Beauty itself never changes. We have the thought that these things are eternal, and indeed, beyond change, in contrast to the empirical world. In fact, if you start thinking more about the world from this perspective, the world we live in is crazy. It’s almost insanely contradictory.

Plato thinks of it as crazy in the way that a dream is. When you’re caught up in the dream, you don’t notice just how insane it all is. But if you step back and reflect on it, “Well, let’s see, I was eating a sandwich and suddenly the sandwich was the Statue of Liberty, except the Statue of Liberty was my mother. And she’s flying over the ocean, except she’s really a piece of spaghetti.” That’s how dreams are. And when you’re in it, it sort of all makes sense. Right? You’re kind of caught up, but you step back and say, “That’s just insane.” Well, Plato thinks that the empirical world has something of that kind of insanity, something of that kind contradictoriness, built into it that we don’t ordinarily notice. “He’s a basketball player, so he’s really, really tall, except he’s only six feet. So he’s really, really short for a basketball player. This is a baby elephant, so it’s really, really big — except it’s a baby elephant, so it’s really, really small.”

The world is constantly rolling — this is a Platonic expression — rolling between one form and the other. And it’s hard to make sense of. In contrast, the mind is able to grasp the Platonic ideas, the Platonic forms; and they’re stable, they’re reliable, they are — they’re law-like and we can grasp them. They don’t change; they’re eternal. That’s, as I say, the Platonic picture.

Chapter 2. Concerns and Issues Leading to the Development of Platonic Forms [00:04:13]

Now, it’s not my purpose here to try to argue for or against Platonism with regard to abstract entities. As I suggested in talking about the example of math last time, it’s not a silly view, even if it’s not a view that we all take automatically. But in thinking about math, most of us are inclined to be Platonists. We all do believe something makes it true that two plus one equals three, but it’s not the fact that empirical objects — We don’t do empirical experiments to see whether two plus one equals three. Rather, we think our mind can grasp the truths about numbers. Plato thought everything was like that. Well, I’m not going to argue for and against that view — just wanted to sketch it, so as to understand the arguments that turn on it.

So for our purposes, let’s suppose Plato was right about that and ask, what follows? Well, Plato thinks what’s going to follow is that we have some reason to believe in the immortality of the soul as, again, as we indicated last time, the picture is that the mind — the soul — is able to grasp these eternal Platonic forms, the ideas. Typically, we’re distracted from thinking about them by the distractions provided by the body — the desire for food, drink, sex, what have you, sleep. But by distancing itself from the body, the mind, the soul, is able to better concentrate on the forms. And if you’re good at that, if you practice while you’re alive, separating yourself from the body, then when your body dies, the mind is able to go up to this Platonic heavenly realm and commune with gods and other immortal souls and think about the forms. But if you’ve not separated yourself from the body while in life, if you’re too enmeshed in its concerns, then upon the death of your body your soul will get sucked back in, reincarnated perhaps, in another body. If you’re lucky, as another person; if you’re not so lucky, as a pig or a donkey or an ant or what have you.

So your goal, Plato says, your goal should be, in life, to practice death — to separate yourself from your body. And because of this, Socrates, who’s facing death, isn’t distressed at the prospect, but happy. He’s happy that the final separation will take place and he’ll be able to go to heaven.

The dialogue ends, of course, with the death scene — Socrates has been condemned to death by the Athenians, and it ends with his drinking the hemlock, not distressed but rather sort of joyful. And the dialogue ends with one of the great moving death scenes in western civilization and as Plato says — let’s get the quote here exactly right — “Of all those we have known, he was the best and also the wisest and the most upright.”

Just before the death scene, there’s a long myth, which I draw your attention to but I don’t want to discuss in any kind of detail. Plato says it’s a story; it’s a myth. He’s trying to indicate that there are things that we can’t really know in a scientific way but we can glimpse. And the myth has to do with these sort of pictures I was just describing where we don’t actually live on the surface of the Earth of in the light, but rather live in certain hollows in the dark where we’re mistaken about the nature of reality. Some of you who are maybe familiar with Plato’s later dialogue The Republic may recognize at least what seems to me, what we have here, is a foreshadowing of the myth of the cave, or the allegory of the cave, which Plato describes there as well.

Our concern is going to be the arguments that make up the center of the dialogue. Because in the center of the dialogue, before he dies, Socrates is arguing with his friends. Socrates is saying, “Look, I’m not worried. I’m going to live forever.” And his disciples and friends are worried whether this is true or not. And so the heart of the dialogue consists of a series of arguments in which Socrates attempts to lay out his reasons for believing in the immortality of the soul. And that’s going to be our concern. What I’m going to do is basically run through my attempt to reconstruct — my attempt to lay out the basic ideas from this series of four or five arguments that Plato gives us. I’m going to criticize them. I don’t think they work, though I want to remark before I turn to them that in saying this I’m not necessarily criticizing Plato. As we’ll see, some of the later arguments seem to be deliberately aimed at answering objections that we can raise to some of the earlier arguments. And so it might well be that Plato himself recognized that the initial arguments aren’t as strong as they need to be.

Plato wrote the dialogues as a kind of learning device, as a tool to help the reader get better at doing philosophy. They don’t necessarily represent in a systematic fashion Plato’s worked out axiomatic views about the nature of philosophy. It could be that Plato’s deliberately putting mistakes in earlier arguments so as to encourage you to think for yourself, “Oh, this is — here’s a problem with this argument. There’s an objection with that argument.” Some of these, Plato then may address later on. But whether or not he does address them — we’re not doing Plato any honor, we’re not doing him any service, if we limit ourselves to simply trying to grasp, here’s what Plato thought. We could do the history of ideas and say, “Here’s Plato’s views. Aren’t they interesting? Notice how they differ from Aristotle’s views. Aren’t they interesting?” and move on like that. But that’s not what the philosophers wanted us to do. The great philosophers had arguments that they were putting forward to try to persuade us of the truths of their positions. And the way you show respect for a philosopher is by taking those arguments seriously and asking yourself, do they work or not? So whether or not the views that are being put forward in Socrates’ mouth are the considered, reflective judgments of Plato or not, for our purposes we can just act as though they were the arguments being put forward by Plato, and we can ask ourselves, “Do these arguments work or don’t they?”

So I’m going to run through a series of these arguments. I’m going to, as I’ve mentioned before, be a bit more exegetical than is normally the case for our readings. I’m going to actually pause, periodically look at my notes and make sure I’m remembering how I think Plato understands the arguments. Of course, since the dialogue is indeed a dialogue, we don’t always have the arguments laid out with a series or premises and conclusions. And so it’s always a matter of interpretation, what’s the best reconstruction of the argument he’s gesturing towards. How can we turn it into an argument with premises and conclusions? Well, that’s what I’m going to try to do for us. Also going to give the arguments names. These are not names that Plato gives, but it will make it easy for us to get a fix, roughly, on the different arguments as we move from one to the next.

So the first argument, and the worry that gets the whole things going, is this. So, we’ve got this nice Platonic picture where Plato says, “All right. So the mind can grasp the eternal forms, but it has to free itself from the body to do that.” And so, the philosopher, who has sort of trained himself to separate his mind from his body, to disregard his bodily cravings and desires — the philosopher will welcome death because at that point he’ll truly, finally, make the final break from the body.

And the obvious worry that gets raised in the dialogue at this point is this: How do we know that when the death of the body occurs the soul doesn’t get destroyed as well? That’s the natural worry to have. Maybe what we need to do is separate ourselves as much as possible from the influence of our body without actually going all the way and breaking the connection. If you think about it like a rubber band, maybe the more we can stretch the rubber band the better; but if you stretch too far and the rubber band snaps, that’s not good, that’s bad. It could be that we need the body in order to continue thinking. We want to free ourselves from the distractions of the body, but we don’t want the body to die, because when the body dies the soul dies as well. Even if we are dualists, as we’ve noticed before — even if the soul is something different from the body — it could still be the case, logically speaking, that if the body gets destroyed, the soul gets destroyed as well.

And so, Socrates’ friends ask him, how can we be confident that the soul will survive the death of the body and indeed be immortal? And that’s what prompts the series of arguments.

Chapter 3. The Argument from the Nature of the Forms [00:14:17]

Now, the first such argument I dub “the argument from the nature of the forms.” And the basic thought is fairly straightforward. The ideas or the forms — justice itself, beauty itself, goodness itself — the forms are not physical objects. Right? We don’t ever bump into justice itself. We bump into societies that may be more or less just, or individuals who may be more or less just, but we never bump into justice itself. The number three is not a physical object. Goodness itself is not a physical object. Perfect roundness is not a physical object. Now, roughly speaking, Socrates’ seems to think it’s going to follow straightforwardly from that that the soul must itself be something non-physical. If the forms are not physical objects, then Socrates thinks it follows they can’t be grasped. We can certainly think about the forms, but if they’re non-physical they can’t be grasped by something physical like the body. They’ve got to be grasped by something non-physical — namely, the soul.

But although that’s, I think, the sketch of where Socrates wants to go, it doesn’t quite give us what we want. On the one hand, even if it were true that the soul must be non-physical in order to grasp the non-physical forms, wouldn’t follow that the soul will survive the death of the body. That’s the problem we’ve been thinking about for the last minute. And there’s something puzzling. We might wonder, well, just why is it that the body can’t grasp the forms?

So there’s a fuller version of the argument that’s the one I want to focus on. And indeed, I put it up on the board. [See Figure 7.1] So Platonic metaphysics gives us premise number one — that ideas, forms, are eternal and they’re non-physical. Two — that which is eternal or non-physical can only be grasped by the eternal and the non-physical. Suppose we had both of those. It would seem to give us three, the conclusion we want — that which grasps the ideas or the forms must be eternal or non-physical.

What is it that grasps the ideas or the forms? Well, that’s the soul. If that which grasps the ideas or the forms must be eternal/non-physical, well one thing we’re going to get is, since that which grasps the forms must be non-physical, the soul is not the body. Since that which grasps the ideas or forms must be eternal or non-physical — it’s eternal, it’s immortal.

All right. Let’s look at this again more carefully. Ideas or forms are eternal; they’re non-physical. Well, I’ve emphasized the non-physical aspect, and I’ve emphasized as well that they’re not changing. But perhaps it’s worth taking a moment to emphasize the eternal aspect of the forms. Now, people may come and go, but perfect justice — the idea of perfect justice — that’s timeless. Nothing that happens here on Earth can change or alter or destroy the number three. Two plus one equaled three before there were people; two plus one equals three now; two plus one will always equal three. The number three is eternal, as well as being non-physical. So the Platonic metaphysics says quite generally, if we’re thinking about the ideas or the forms, the point to grasp is they’re eternal; they’re non-physical.

The crucial premise — since we’re giving Plato number one — the crucial premise for our purposes is premise number two. Is it or isn’t it true that those things which are eternal or non-physical can only be grasped by something that is itself eternal and non-physical? Again, it does seem as though the conclusion that he wants, number three, follows from that. If we give him number two, it’s going to follow that whatever’s doing the grasping — call that the soul since the soul is just Plato’s word for our mind — if whatever’s doing the grasping of the eternal and non-physical forms must itself be eternal and non-physical, it follows that the soul must be non-physical. So the physicalist view is wrong and the soul must be eternal. The soul is immortal. So Socrates has what he wants, once we give him premise number two, that the eternal, non-physical can only be grasped by the eternal, non-physical.

As Socrates puts it at one point, “The impure cannot attain the pure.” Bodies — corruptible, destroyable, physical, passing — whether they exist or not, whether they exist for a brief period and then they cease to exist — these impure objects cannot attain, cannot grasp, cannot have knowledge of the eternal, changeless non-physical forms. “The impure cannot attain the pure.”

That’s the crucial premise, and what I want to say is, as far as I can see there’s no good reason to believe number two. Now, number two is not an unfamiliar — premise number two is not an unfamiliar claim. I take it the claim basically is that, to put it in more familiar language, it takes one to know one. Or to use it, slightly other kind of language that Plato uses at various points, “Likes are known by likes.” But it takes one to know one is probably the most familiar way of putting the point. Plato’s saying, “What is it that we know? Well, we know the eternal forms; takes one to know one. So we must ourselves be eternal.”

Unfortunately, this thought, popular as it may be, that it takes one to know one, just seems false. Think about some examples. Well, let’s see, a biologist might study, or a zoologist might study, cats. Takes one to know one, so the biologist must himself be a cat. Well, that’s clearly false. You don’t have to be feline to study the feline. Takes one to know one; so, you can’t be a Canadian and study Mexicans, because it takes one to know one. Well, that’s just clearly stupid. Of course the Canadians can study the Mexicans and the Germans can study the French. It does not take one to know one; to understand the truths about the French, you do not yourself need to be French. Or take the fact that some doctors study dead bodies. Aha! So to study and grasp things about dead bodies, corpses, you must yourself be a dead body. No, that certainly doesn’t follow. So if we start actually pushing ourselves to think about examples — does it really take one to know one — the answer is, at least as a general claim, it’s not true. It doesn’t normally take one to know one.

Now, strictly speaking, that doesn’t prove that premise two is false. It could still be that, although normally you don’t have to be like the thing that you’re studying in order to study it, although that’s not normally true, it could be that in the particular case of non-physical objects, in the particular case of eternal objects, you do have to be eternal, non-physical to study them. It could be that even though the general claim, “it takes one to know one” is false, the particular claim, “eternal, non-physical can only be grasped by the eternal, non-physical,” maybe that particular claim is true. And it’s only the particular claim that Plato needs. Still, all I can say is, why should we believe two? Why should we think there’s some — Even though, normally, the barrier can be crossed and Xs can study the non-X, why should that barrier suddenly become un-crossable in the particular instance when we’re dealing with Platonic forms? Give us some reason to believe premise two. I can’t see any good reason to believe premise two, and as far as I can see, Plato doesn’t actually give us any reason to believe it in the dialogue. Consequently, we have to say, as far as I can see, we haven’t been given any adequate argument for the conclusion that the soul — which admittedly can think about forms and ideas — we have no good reason yet to believe, to be persuaded, that the soul must itself be eternal and non-physical. That’s the first argument.

Chapter 4. The Argument from Recycling [00:24:33]

As I say though, Plato may well recognize the inadequacy of that argument, because after all Socrates goes on to offer a series of other arguments. So let’s turn to the next. I call the second argument “the argument from recycling” — not the best label I suppose, but I’ve never been able to come up with a better one. And the basic idea is that parts get re-used. Things move from one state to another state and then back to the first state. So, for example, to give an example that Plato actually gives in the dialogue, we are all awake now, but previously we were asleep. We went from being in the realm of the asleep to being in the realm of the awake, and we’re going to return from the realm of the awake back to the realm of the asleep and over and over and over again. Hence, recycling. I think that actually a better example for Plato’s purposes, not that I expect him to have this particular example, but, would be a car. Cars are made up of parts that existed before the car itself existed. There was the engine and the steering wheel and the tires and so forth. And these parts got assembled and put together to make up a car. So the parts of the car existed prior to the existence of the car itself. And the time is going to come when the car will cease to exist but its parts will still be around. Right? It’ll get taken apart for parts, sold for parts. There will be the distributor cap, and there will be the tires, and there will be the carburetor, there will be the steering wheel. Hence, the name, that I dub the argument, “the argument from recycling.”

That’s the nature of reality for Plato. And it seems like a plausible enough view. Things come into being by being composed of previously existing parts. And then, when those things cease to have the form they had, the parts get used for other purposes. They get recycled. If we grant that to Plato, he thinks we’ve got an argument for the immortality of the soul. Because after all, what are the parts that make us up? Well, there are the various parts of our physical body, but there’s also our soul. Remember, as I said, in introducing the Phaedo, Plato doesn’t so much argue for the existence of something separate, the soul, as presuppose it. His fundamental concern is to try to argue for the immortality of the soul. So he’s just helping himself to the assumption that there is a soul. It’s one of the parts that makes us, that goes up into making us up, goes into making us up. It’s one of the pieces that constitutes us. Given the thesis about recycling, then, we have reason to believe the soul will continue to exist after we break. Even after our death, our parts will continue to exist. Our body continues to exist even after our death. Our soul will continue to exist.

Well, there’s a problem with the argument from recycling, and it’s this. Even if the recycling thesis shows us that we’re made up of something that existed before our birth and that some kinds of parts are going to have to exist after our death, we can’t conclude that the soul is one of the parts that’s going to continue to exist after our death.

Consider some familiar facts about human bodies. As we nowadays know, human bodies are made up of atoms. And it’s certainly true that the atoms that make up my body existed long before my body existed. And it’s certainly true that after my death those atoms are going to continue to exist. So there’s some — and will eventually get used to make something else. So Plato’s certainly right about recycling as a fundamental truth. The things that make me up existed before, and will continue to exist after my death.

But that doesn’t mean that every part of my body existed before I was born, and that every part of my body will continue to exist after I die. Take my heart. My heart is a part of my body. Yet, for all that, it didn’t exist before my body began to exist. It came into existence as part of, along with, the creation of my body, and it won’t continue to exist, at least not very long, after the destruction of my body. There’ll be a brief period in which, as a cadaver I suppose, my heart will continue to exist. But eventually my body will decompose. We certainly wouldn’t have any grounds to conclude my heart is immortal, will exist forever. That just seems wrong. So even though it’s true that some kind of recycling takes place, we can’t conclude that everything that’s now a part of me will continue to exist afterwards. It might not have been one of the parts, one of the fundamental parts, from which I’m built — like the heart. And if that’s right, if there can be parts that I have now that weren’t one of the parts from which I was made, there’s no particular reason to think it’s going to be one of the parts that’s going to continue to exist after I die.

Once we see that kind of worry, we have to see, look, the same thing could be true for the soul. Even if there is an immortal soul — Sorry. Even if there is a non-physical soul that’s part of me, we don’t yet have any reason to believe that it’s one of the fundamental building blocks that were being recycled. We don’t have adequate reason to conclude that it’s something that existed before I was put together, it’s something that will be recycled and continue to exist after I fall apart, after my body decomposes, after I’m separated from my body, or what have you. Even if recycling takes place, we don’t have any good reason yet to believe that the soul is one of the recycled parts. So it seems to me “the argument from recycling,” as I call it, is not successful either.

Now, as I say, many times when you read the dialogue, this or other dialogues by Plato, it seems as though he’s fully cognizant of the objections that at least an attentive reader will raise about earlier stages of the argument. Because sometimes the best way to understand a later argument is to see it as responding to the weaknesses of earlier arguments. And I think that’s pretty clearly what’s going on in the very next argument that comes up in the dialogue. The objection I just raised, after all, to the argument from recycling, said, in effect, even though some kind of recycling takes place, not all my parts get recycled, because not all of my parts were among the pre-existing constituent pieces from which I am built up. We don’t have any particular reason to think my heart’s one of the prior-existing pieces; we don’t have any good reason to assume that my soul’s one of the prior-existing pieces.

Chapter 5. The Argument from Recollection [00:33:33]

Well, Plato’s very next argument attempts to persuade us that indeed we do have reason to believe that the soul is one of the prior-existing pieces. And this argument is known as “the argument from recollection.” The idea is, he’s going to tell us certain facts that need explaining, and the best explanation involves a certain fact about recollecting, or a certain claim about recollecting or remembering. But we can only remember, he thinks, in the relevant way if our soul existed before the birth of our body, before the creation of our body. All right.

What’s the crucial fact? Well, let’s start by — Plato starts by telling us, reminding us of what it is to remember something. Or perhaps a better word would be what is it to be reminded of something by something else that resembles it but is not the thing it reminds you of. I might have a photograph of my friend Ruth. And looking at the photograph reminds me of Ruth. It brings Ruth to mind. I start thinking about Ruth. I remember various things I know about Ruth. The photograph is able to do that, is able to trigger these thoughts. But of course, the photograph is not Ruth. Right? Nobody would — who’s thinking clearly — would confuse the photograph with my friend. But the photograph resembles Ruth. It resembles Ruth well enough to remind me of her, and interestingly, it can do that even if it’s not a very good photograph. You might hold up the photograph and I might say, “Gosh, that really doesn’t look very much like Ruth does it?” Even though I see that it is a photograph of Ruth; it reminds me of her.

Now, how could it be that a photograph reminds me of my friend? Well, this isn’t some deep mystery. Presumably the way it works is, as I just said, it looks sort of like her. It doesn’t have to look very much like her. It looks sort of like her. Your young brother or sister, or my little children, can draw pictures of family members that barely look like family members. My niece drew a picture of my family once when she was three. It didn’t look very much like us at all, but we could sort of see the resemblance in a vague kind of way, right? So it’s got to look at least somewhat like the missing friend. But that’s not enough. You’ve never met Ruth, let’s suppose. I hold up the photograph without having told you anything about her. The photograph’s not going to remind you of Ruth. Why not? Well, you don’t know Ruth. So the pieces we need are not only an image of Ruth, even if an imperfect image of Ruth, we also need some prior acquaintance with Ruth. That’s pretty much what it takes, right? So on the one hand — temporal sequence — first you know Ruth, you meet Ruth, you get to know Ruth. Then at a later time you’re shown an image of Ruth — maybe not even an especially good image of Ruth — but good enough to remind you. And suddenly, you’re remembering things you know about Ruth. That’s how recollection works. All right.

Now, Plato points out that we all know things about the Platonic forms. But the Platonic forms, as we also know, are not to be found in this world. The number three is not a physical object, perfect roundness is not a physical object, perfect goodness is not a physical object. We can think about these things; our mind can grasp them, but they’re not to be found in this world. Yet, various things that we do find in this world get us thinking about those things. I look at the plate on my kitchen table, it’s not perfectly round, it’s got imperfections; but suddenly I start thinking about circles, perfectly round objects. I look at somebody who’s pretty. He or she is not perfectly beautiful, but suddenly I start thinking about the nature of beauty itself. Ordinary objects in the world participate to a greater or lesser degree in the Platonic forms. That’s Plato’s picture of metaphysics. And we bump up against, we look at, we have interactions with these everyday objects and, somehow, they get us thinking about the Platonic forms themselves. How does it happen? Plato has a theory. He says, “These things remind us of the Platonic forms.” We see something that’s beautiful to some degree, and it reminds us of perfect beauty. We see something that’s more or less round, and it reminds us of perfect circularity. We see somebody who’s fairly decent morally, and it reminds us of perfect justice or perfect virtue. It’s just like the photograph, perhaps the not very good photograph, that reminds me of my friend Ruth.

All right. Well, there’s an explanation of how it could be that things that are not themselves perfectly round could remind us, could make us think about perfect roundness. But then Plato says, “Okay, but keep in mind all of what you need in order to have reminding, to have recollecting take place.” In order for the photograph to remind me of Ruth, I have to already have met Ruth. I have to already be acquainted with her. In order for a more or less round plate to remind me of roundness, Plato says, I have to have already met perfect roundness itself. In order for a more or less just society to remind me of justice itself, so that I can start thinking about the nature of justice itself, I have to somehow have already been acquainted with perfect justice. But how and when did it happen? Not in this life, not in this world. In this world nothing is perfectly round, nothing is perfectly beautiful, nothing is perfectly just. So it’s got to have happened before. If seeing the photograph of my friend now can remind me of my friend, it’s got to be because I met my friend before. If seeing things that participate in the forms remind me of the forms, it’s got to be because I’ve met or been acquainted directly with the forms before. But you don’t bump up against, you don’t meet, you don’t see or grasp or become directly acquainted with, the forms in this life. So it’s got to have happened before this life.

That’s Plato’s argument. Plato says, thinking about the way in which we grasp the forms helps us to see that the soul must have existed before birth, in the Platonic heavenly realm, directly grasping, directly communing with, directly understanding the forms. It’s not taking place in this life, so it has to have happened before.

Well, look, now we’ve got the kind of argument we were looking for. Earlier the objection was, we had no good reason to think the soul was one of the building blocks from which we’re composed; we have no good reason to think it’s one of the pieces that was around before our body got put together, before our birth. Socrates says, “No. On the contrary, we do have reason, based on the argument from recollection, to conclude that the soul was around before we were born.”

Chapter 6. Do Plato’s Arguments Suffice? [00:43:54]

All right. So the next question is, is the argument from recollection a good one? Now, let’s say, I’m not really much concerned with whether this was an argument that Plato thought worked or not. Our question is, do we think it works or not? Although this is a form of an argument that Plato does put forward in other dialogues as well, and so it strikes me so there’s at least some reason to think this is an argument that he felt might well be right. The crucial premise — Again, we’re going to just grant Plato the metaphysics. The crucial question is going to be, is it right that in order to explain how it is we could have knowledge of the forms now that we have to appeal to a prior existence in which we had direct acquaintance?

It’s not obvious to me that that’s true. It’s not obvious to me for a couple of reasons. One question is this: Is it really true that in order to think about the perfectly straight, I must have somehow, somewhere at some point come up against, had direct knowledge of, the perfectly straight? Isn’t it enough for me to extrapolate from cases that I do come up against in this life? I come across things that are bent; I come across things that are more straight, more and more straight. Can’t my mind take off from there and push straight ahead to the idea of the perfectly straight, even if I never have encountered it before?

Let me stop with this idea. Even if Plato is right, that we need to have acquaintance with the Platonic forms themselves in order to think about them, and even if Plato is right that we never get the acquaintance in this world, in the interaction with ordinary physical objects, why couldn’t it be that our acquaintance with the Platonic forms comes about in this life for the very first time? That’s the question, or that’s the objection, that we’ll turn to at the start of next class.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]