Plato Defends Rationalism

Last Updated: 20 Jun 2022
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Plato Defends Rationalism Plato was a highly educated Athenian Philosopher. He lived from 428-348 B. C. Plato spent the early portion of his life as a disciple to Socrates, which undoubtedly helped shape his philosophical theories. One topic that he explored was epistemology. Epistemology is the area of philosophy that deals with questions concerning knowledge, and that considers various theories of knowledge (Lawhead 52). Plato had extremely distinct rationalistic viewpoints. Rationalism is the claim that reason, or intellect, is the primary source of our fundamental knowledge about reality (55).

By examining Plato’s philosophical position on the three basic epistemological questions, as well as analyzing his ability to justify the three anchor points of rationalism, it is clear to see that Plato was successful in defending rationalism. There are three basic questions that are the basis for determining the difference between each of the epistemological viewpoints. The first of these is: Is knowledge possible? In order to understand exactly what is being asked here, it is important to consider the agreed definition of knowledge as being a “true justified belief” (53).

Plato believed that yes, it is possible to have knowledge. He claimed that as long as one has the ability to recognize something as false, they are capable of having knowledge. The second question is: Does reason provide us with knowledge of the world independently of experience? Plato would also answer yes to this question as well. Many objected to this, believing that knowledge was a result of sense experience rather than reason. Plato examined this theory (empiricism); he argued that, because the physical world is subject to change, there can be no real truth in knowledge that is based solely on one’s senses.

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He then used the examples Justice, Goodness, and Equality to justify his argument that there are some things that we cannot come to know through experience alone, thus casting doubt on the empiricist theory. Plato expands on the teachings of Socrates, and acknowledges the concept that we already have ideas or principles that are contained in our mind prior to experience, called innate ideas (73). The third and final question is: Does our knowledge represent reality as it really is? To this question, he would answer yes. Plato’s distinction between innate ideas and sense experience bring us to understand his true sense of reality.

Our innate ideas are the foundation from which we are able to possess rational knowledge. Rational knowledge, as Plato explains, gives us the ability to differentiate between invariable “Forms” (Universals) and the ever changing characteristics that are recognized through sense experiences. Plato believes that knowledge of Universals provide us with knowledge of the fundamental features of reality, which are nonphysical, eternal, and unchanging (81). The three anchor points of Rationalism expand on the question discussed above, Does reason provide us with knowledge of the world independently of experience?

The first anchor point is: Reason is the primary or most superior source of knowledge about reality (72). Plato proves this point to be true by determining that it is through unchanging, Universal knowledge, that we come to find reality. The second anchor point is: Sense experience is an unreliable and inadequate route to knowledge (73). Plato questions the reliability and adequacy of sense experience, due to the fact that there are things that we are simply unable to experience in the physical world. If knowledge comes strictly from experience, and we are unable to experience some things, how is it that we come to find such knowledge?

Plato also argues that sense experiences are subject to individual interpretation, and are ever changing. Knowledge cannot be based on inconstant perception. The final anchor point of rationalism is: The fundamental truths about the world can be known a priori (independently of, or prior to, experience): They are either innate or self-evident to our minds (73). Plato believed that knowledge was contained in our soul from preexistence, and was independent of human experiences. He came to the conclusion that it is from these innate ideas that we are able to recognize reality.

Plato’s view on epistemology is extremely consistent with that of rationalism. He was able to successfully justify his beliefs, not only by proving his theory, but also by disproving alternative theories. Plato recognized the fact that knowledge is possible. He believed that the ability to identify something as false can only come from knowing truth. This was the first step in his philosophical journey. In his quest to determine the source, and explore the characteristics of knowledge, he made several valid arguments.

Plato’s strongest argument was that we cannot base our knowledge directly on experience, because there are circumstances in which our senses do not provide us with reliable truths. Not only did this make it apparent that experience is not concrete enough to act as a basis for knowledge, thus disproving the imperialistic theory, but it also helped justify his theory of Universals. Plato was able to prove that reason, by way of innate ideas, leads us to knowledge, as it was defined above, a true justified belief.

This rational knowledge, in turn, leads us to the knowledge of reality. Plato spent much of his life studying philosophy, and the concept of knowledge. After finding fault in other epistemological theories, he was led to develop a philosophy of his own. Plato’s approach toward epistemology was considerably different from that of other philosophers in his day. His rationalistic viewpoints were extremely influential. He brought light to the concept of Universals, which had a great impact on the work of philosophers after him.

Plato was able to explain knowledge from all aspects, which set him apart from others. Plato was not only able to conclude that knowledge is possible, he was also able to explain how knowledge is obtained. By examining Plato’s philosophical position on the three basic epistemological questions, as well as analyzing his ability to justify the three anchor points of rationalism, it is clear to see that Plato was successful in defending rationalism.

Works Cited Lawhead, William F. The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. 52-81. Print

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