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Comparison of the Epistemologies of Plato and Aristotle

Robert Godlewski

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

STS2233W: Magic, Medicine, & Science

Professor Jonathan Bain


I. Introduction

This paper will compare the epistemologies of Aristotle and Plato, specifically their ideas of

knowledge and what it consists of. I will claim that the foundations of modern knowledge are

more closely related to Aristotle's ideas rather than to Plato's. This will require an invalidation of

Plato's concepts of knowledge which will be provided in Section II. In Section III, I will explain

Aristotle's views on the source of knowledge and how it is created as well as developed over

time. Section IV will detail the reasons why modern thinking follows Aristotle's views.

II. Invalidation of Plato's Concepts of Knowledge

Plato takes a more divine stance on the source of knowledge throughout his writings. In the

Platonic Doctrine of Recollection, Plato believes that all humans are born with all the knowledge

they will ever achieve the chance to possess. The goal of the human is to discover, or rather to

excavate that knowledge from within him or herself. It is stated in this text (380 B.C.E., Meno's

line 94) that the soul inside the human body once lived in "realism" but somehow became

trapped inside the body and in the process "forgot" all of what it knew. The doctrine implies that

nothing can ever be learned but rather must be recalled through the use of the senses.

The doctrine suggests that we as humans already know everything there is to know and it is

technically possible for us to recall everything we "forgot", which according to Plato himself

means everything there is and will be possible to know. Notwithstanding the possibility of this

idea being true, we must first and most importantly truly understand the difference between

forgetting something and not knowing it at all. When one forgets something, it takes only a short

explanation or a quick glimpse to recall it back from memory. However, when one does not

know something at all or has never knew it before, a much longer and more precise explanation

is required.
Take for example recalling versus learning mathematics, specifically the field of Calculus. If we

were to follow Plato's idea of knowledge, we would be subjected into believing that all that

would be required to grasp Calculus in all its glory would be a simple explanation, such as a

single example of one of its subfields. Although a few very talented individuals located around

the world might possess the talent of understanding such a complex field of mathematics through

a single example or short explanation, the vast majority of all humans require multiple

explanations or lectures along with a plethora of examples. And yet, even after these long

explanations, some still do not achieve a complete understanding of the field, or in the words of

Plato, still are not capable of recalling the knowledge from within their body.

In The Republic, Plato (360 B.C.E., Book II) states that the sun is the source of the knowledge

for the soul and refers to it as "The Form of the Good". Through the eyes, which are different

from all the other sensory organs in that they require outside help, specifically illumination in

order to work , the soul has learned everything there is to know. Without the sun the soul would

know absolutely nothing as it would not be able to see anything. Additionally, Plato argues that

the sun is the creator of all objects and events because there being colors in the world and things

to see is a direct result of different beams of sunlight shining from different directions.

Contrary to Plato's premises for his argument, the eyes are not the only organs that require

outside help in order to function. The ears require a medium for sound to travel through to reach

them as does the nose which requires air for it to properly sense smell. Furthermore, there are

objects which cannot be seen while the sun is providing illumination, such as stars and there are

also objects that cannot be seen at all, such as air. To agree with Plato's description of knowledge

we must set the above exceptions aside, which even though it would give Plato's ideas a greater

chance of being correct, it would force us to ignore the laws of the real world.
In Allegory of the Cave, an allegory created by Plato (CrystalLinks, The Myth of the Cave) to

support his idea of the soul being trapped by the body, he gives the example of a prisoner being

chained to a cave wall since his childhood and exposed only to a few shadows constantly moving

on this wall. For the entire time, the prisoner would be led to believe that the shadows he is

seeing are the real world and that it consists of only these shadows and nothing else. But when he

is finally released and allowed to look behind him, he refuses to accept the fact that the shadows

were mere visual tricks of the actual and realistic events taking place behind him. In the allegory,

he likens humans as being the prisoners and refusing to accept his ideas of knowledge and the

perception of the sun as "The Form of the Good".

When this allegory is coupled with Plato's Theory of Forms (Banach, 2006), an argument is

founded which attempts to persuade that what we are seeing in front of us is not real but instead

only mimics reality. Allegory of the Cave describes that, because we have only been shown this

fantasy and not reality, we take the former to be the true and the later to be false. Plato states that

because we are prisoners, we can only be saved from this apparent incorrect thinking by the

philosophers of history, including Plato himself. Philosophers attempt to take us by the hand and

release our jailed perceptions but we refuse to place our belief in them, thus we are doomed to

believe in fantasy and not reality.

Even though the ideas of knowledge in both of these works certainly seem plausible at first, we

must couple them with Plato's other ideas in other to check their consistency. If according to

Plato's Platonic Doctrine of Recollection, our belief in something is a result of excavating it from

memory, and furthermore, if anything excavated from memory is true because it has come from

the previous real world, logic provides us and the prisoners no other option but to consider the

shadows on the cave wall as being the real world. Thus one is presented with the dissention that
the logical conclusion taken from Allegory of the Cave directly contradicts the logic in the

Platonic Doctrine of Recollection.

III. Aristotle's Views on the Source of Knowledge

Aristotle's views on the source of knowledge strictly adhere to the principles of logic. He shares

most of his ideas of knowledge and observations of the world in a work titled Metaphysics.

Although this work consists of many other sub-works or books, Aristotle's final conclusion about

knowledge is that every object consists of both matter and form and that one cannot exist without

the other (Hooker, 1999, The Classification of Knowledge). He states that humans achieve

knowledge through observation of an object's form and actions rather than through reason.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle believes that the goal is not to recall everything but instead to observe the

interaction of the forms of things.

His work stands by the idea that all things are created using two pertinent entities, matter and

form. Matter is simply a medium to hold an object's form. It cannot exist by itself because it

would not have a unique definition of its purpose and instructions for how it should interact with

other matter. Without form, all matter is the same in that it is a null entity and cannot be seen as

there is no way to differentiate it from other matter. Form provides a set of instructions and a

definition of the behavior for the matter it belongs to.

According to Aristotle, without form one object cannot be different from another object as there

is nothing for them to differentiate each other through. For example, a block of gold is no

different from a bucket of water - the two are just undefined matter and nothing more. However,

once form is added to the two objects, they can differentiate themselves through the differences

in their form. The gold's form can state that its matter should be heavy and a solid while the
bucket of water's form can state that its matter should be normal in weight and a liquid.

An object's form is important in the world because it is what provides something for a human to

observe. When one observes a block of gold, they notice that it is yellow is color, glossy, heavy,

hard, and in one piece. All of these properties have been defined by the matter's form. An object

interacting with another object does this through its properties, which again, are defined by its

matter's form.

IV. Why Modern Thinking Follows Aristotle's Views

Aside from a religious point of view, it is valid to state that all modern thinking is a result of the

observation of its interaction, or form. The laws of physics for example, must always be proven

to be true or false through means of experimentation or observation. This experimentation is a

means of finding the answer for the composition of the object's in question form. Additionally,

everything about the object and its form must be proven completely as guessing is not

acceptable. Plato's idea of recalling knowledge is considered to be unacceptable by the physics

community as it would yield uncertain conclusions and just mere guesses.

In another example, the field of chemistry determines that values of foundational elements in the

Periodic Table of Element through the testing of their forms. Each element, without its form

consists only of undefined matter and is undistinguishable from the other elements. When form

is considered during testing and experimentation, chemists are able to understand the differences

in each element and discover suitable uses for it.

In the field of biology, knowledge of the composition and interaction of diseases and medicine is

crucial. All diseases and medicine are composed of identical matter but their forms vary. The

differences in their forms are the reason why some medicines are more effective against some
diseases and vice versa. Through the observation of their forms, biologists can determine which

medicine should be used against which disease.

V. Conclusion

Even though Plato does make valid statements that seem plausible, such as in The Republic

where he states that the sun is the source of all knowledge, his arguments lack the support

necessary to make possible conclusions. By most standards, it is considered true that without the

sun the human would not be able to gather knowledge but the idea that the sun is the source of it

does seem raise a few questions.

Aristotle's ideas are supported by the process through which today's discoveries and conclusions

are developed. All fields of science, especially physics, chemistry, and biology depend on the

observation of an object's interactions with another object. Without observation of the object's

properties, or rather form, scientists can only make mere guesses. Thus, the only correct way to

gain knowledge is to observe not just the object's matter but also and more importantly, its form.

Given this, one can conclude that because modern thinking is based off of observation of the

interaction and composition of objects, Aristotle's ideas of knowledge are more favorable and

valid than Plato's ideas.

References
Creatorix 'Plato The Idealist', Creatorix

<http://www.creatorix.com.au/philosophy/04/04f09.html>

CrystalLinks (Theory of Knowledge, The Myth of the Cave) 'Plato', CrystalLinks

<http://www.crystalinks.com/plato.html>

David Banach (2006, II. The Forms) 'Plato's Theory of Forms', St. Anselm College

<http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/platform.htm>

Garth Kemerling (2001) 'Plato: Immortality and the Forms', Philosophy Pages

<http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/2f.htm>

Richard Hooker (1999, The Classification of Knowledge) 'Aristotle', World Civilizations

<http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/GREECE/ARIST.HTM>

Plato (360 B.C.E) 'The Republic', Massachusetts Institute of Technology

<http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html>

Plato (380 B.C.E) 'Meno', Massachusetts Institute of Technology

<http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/meno.html>

The Philosopher’s Lighthouse (first link on bottom navigation) 'Aristotle's Thoughts on

Knowledge', Oracle Thinkquest <http://library.thinkquest.org/18775/plato/knowp.htm>

The Philosopher's Lighthouse (first link on bottom navigation) 'Plato's Thoughts on Knowledge',

Oracle Thinkquest <http://library.thinkquest.org/18775/plato/knowp.htm>